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Andrew Alden

Did the Ancients Really Use Vinegar to Break Rocks?

By December 20, 2012

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There was a mining tradition for many centuries in Europe, in which rock was heated with fire and then shattered, or at last weakened, by pouring on large amounts of vinegar. Hannibal was said to have used this method to create roadways large enough for his war elephants when crossing the Alps to invade Rome in 218 BCE. Modern chemistry doesn't explain this, and surely the smell of vinegar steam must have been a dissuasive experience. My colleague, Mining Guide Philippe Dozolme, goes into the history of this custom and favors the explanation that the whole thing was based on a transcription error in an ancient manuscript. It wouldn't be the first time something like that has happened.

Comments

December 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm
(1) Kysar says:

the vinegar was used to disolve the rocks when they crossed the alps the heat was used to speed up the reaction by several fold. It only worked because of the rocks chemistry. As I recall the history chanel did a show about this several years ago.

December 20, 2012 at 10:50 pm
(2) Geology Guide says:

But see, vinegar doesn’t do that. All it does is fizz a little, on limestone. I don’t know exactly what the History Channel said, but I don’t trust it.

Now it’s true that today, oil drillers use acid treatments in certain rocks. But they use REAL acids, like hydrofluoric acid. Acetic acid, when purified, is strong enough to keep away from, but the vinegar of ancient times was a very mild thing with no significant effect on rocks.

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