Cellulose is organic polymer of glucose, or a polysaccharide. These terms come from the Greek words “poly” or many and “meros” meaning parts or units. Cellulose makes up a large portion of plants cell walls and their support system as well as providing storage for glucose in these plants. The structural units are B-glucose units and storage polysaccharides are a-glucose units. The only difference between the two is where the OH is placed on the glucose ring, B being above, and a, below. The cellulose molecule is made up of long chains. When packed closely together they form these rigid cell walls. Similarly to plants cell walls, cellulose is bundled and twisted to make different textile fabrics, such as cotton, which is made out of 90% of cellulose.
The cotton plant had a major impact in markets all over the world, especially in 18th and 19th century Britain as well as the slave trade from Africa to the “new world”. Evidence shows that cotton was cultivated in Asia and Europe as early as 300 BC. Lancashire, England, became the center of cotton manufacturing. A damp climate, available land, and a bounty of clean water led to the perfect place to start a cotton revolution. The demand of cotton lead to new innovative ways of manufacturing such as James Watt’s invention of the steam engine to power these plants through steam. Not all consequences of the cotton revolution were good. The workers in these cotton factories and mills worked very long, hard hours, for little pay and little freedom. Families of workers were forced to live on site and pay high prices for crowded, dingy living quarters. Conditions in these factories were very unsafe, and could easily lead to death, from either an accident from a deadly machine or sickness from the unsanitary and dusty environment. not even half the children born to factory working families lived to the age of 5 because of these appalling conditions. Word of this unfair work environment led to many labor laws, fixing reasonable hours, wages, and working conditions. The success from cotton manufacturing pushed America to enter the race… leading to the need of cheap labor and the issue of slavery. 20 years after 2/3 of the United States exports consisted of cotton the slave population jumped from 1.5 million to 4 million.
A new discovery was made by Friedrich Schonbein in the 1845, that when combined with nitric acid, then added to water, cellulose could produce a highly flammable and explosive powder, today known as guncotton. Gunpowder is still the most common type of explosive due to guncotton’s unstable and sensitive properties. Some of the first films used in photography were formed from the nitrocellulose compound found in guncotton. Some believe the photography or movie business would not be the same without this application of cellulose.
I believe the impact one little polysaccharide has had in history is enormous. The fashion and textile industry would not be the same without cotton. Many discoveries would not have been made if not for the fabric as well. Labor laws and unions that benefit many workers would never have been put in place either. Monumental periods in history such as the Civil War might not have taken place if not for the need of slaves for cotton picking. Modern day forms of entertainment such as photography and film making might now have been discovered if it weren’t for Schonbein’s discovery of nitrocellulose. I cant even image a world without the influence and glamor of Hollywood and the movie business.
Authors, Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson make an intriguing case about the importance and impact cellulose has made on our world. I full heartedly agree with their opinion that without the compound cellulose history would have been written very differently. Maybe some things would still be the same, but many events and object we take for granted would not be here today without cellulose.
Lydia Miller 3/16/14