History of SolventsThe first solvents used were almost certainly hydrocarbons, such as turpentines, derived from wood sources, and ethanol from wine spirits. Ancient civilizations discovered that by fermenting vegetable matter, such as grapes or sugar cane, they could produce ethanol. In many ways it looked and behaved like water; in other ways it was very different and proved invaluable for dissolving oils and resins.
Ancient Syrians found that heating wood sealed away from the air resulted in a variety of tars and liquids. One of the liquids, now called methanol by chemists, proved to be a useful solvent and fuel.
Solvents were also discovered for medicinal purposes. The Book of the Ten Treatises on the Eye' (Assyrian Hunayn Ibn-Ishaq 809-873 A.D.) contains recipes for eye compresses in which Hunayn described methods of preparations, techniques, ingredients and solvents used.
The Egyptians may have used solvents in the production of cosmetics. Chemists from L'Oreal worked with scientists from the Louvre in Paris to analyze make-up from the 2nd millennium. In doing so, they learned that the black eye makeup contained components that did not exist in nature, which means that the Egyptians synthesised these substances. The complicated science of wet chemistry - working with solvents - seems to have existed back then as well.
The use of solvents in the production of perfume reached an important turning point when, in 1900, Antoine de Chiris and Roure Bertrand Fils presented essences extracted with volatile solvents at the Paris World Fair and for which they consequently also won the World's Fair Grand Prize.
With industrialization, the mass market for cosmetics was also born. Other large scale uses started at the same time initially with coal and eventually oil-derived products. The use of synthesised solvents, cost effectively and consistently produced, has, in the past 100 years, made possible the manufacture of a huge variety of goods which we nowadays take for granted, but without which living standards would be sharply reduced.
Reprinted in part from Directory of Solvents, 1996, Blackie Academic