Thursday, February 03, 2011

Bye Bye Mercury Thermometers

In what is probably the final death knell for mercury thermometers, the National Institute of Science and Technology will no longer calibrate them. Unlike the passing of many other artifacts from my youth, I don't think I will miss them very much, although kids these days now are taught to be so paranoid of elemental mercury that they will never know the pure fun of rolling quicksilver around on a countertop.

Being made of glass, they were prone to breaking, and then cleaning them up could be quite the mess. I recall TAing the unit operations lab class at Illinois where we had a large (30 foot (?)) glass distillation column that had tongues into which mercury thermometers were placed to measure the temperature at various elevations in the column. Of course they broke often and the mercury pooled at the bottom, exposed to the heat of the column until we pulled it out with a vacuum.

During that same time period, another researcher in our group gathered up all the mercury that he could find in the department and took it to the recycling center. He ended up with quite a bit of money which then provided the donuts for a couple of years worth of group meetings.

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