I have kept a file of of oddities and quiddities for many years, and the importance of science today means that is now time that I shared this gem of research and science with you.  It comes from the September 1968 Newsletter of the Royal Australian Historical Society, a completely blameless and virtuous academic journal. Its headline for this piece was ‘Instant Folklore’, and it gave its source as the London Daily Mirror. What follows is the text.

The American weekly magazine Saturday Review has made history, 2300 years after it didn’t happen. On 5 August 1961, a columnist cracked a joke about Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) and how he invented the first wristwatch. It consisted, said the columnist, of a chemically-treated cloth worn on the left forearm which, under the heat of the sun, changed colour each hour. It was known, he added, as Alexander’s Rag Timeband.

Everyone agreed it was very funny. Until, in 1966, a technical journal, Product Engineering, described the new science of photochromism. It defined this as ‘The reversible change in the colour of a substance when exposed to radiant energy, such as light’. It added, seriously, that Alexander started it all.

Then the journal of the Canadian Chemical Society published a treatise on ‘Photochromic silver halide glasses’, commenting: ‘It is recorded that Alexander the Great discovered a substance …. This became known as Alexander’s Rag timeband’. A magazine called Spectrum later cemented Alexander’s claim to scientific fame in another article on photochromism, adding a homely touch: ‘The cloth was torn from the edge of his tunic’. More recently, an issue of Chemical and Engineering News assumed the anecdote to be gospel. And finally, comes the most learned reference of all, in volume one of an impressive textbook on photochromism, Advances in Photochromistry by R.Dessauer and J.P. Paris. It records this note: ‘Application of photochromic materials was first exploited by Alexander the Great as Alexander’s Rag Timeband (8)’.

The figure 8 in brackets leads to a footnote, and the footnote refers to the Saturday Review, 5 August 1961!

I’ve always loved this story, and in particular the delicious detail of sources and quotes. When I re-read it today I wondered how true all that was — not the joke, but the lovingly depicted context. In the context of peer review and some shoddy practices in the journal business, I thought I had better check on the bona fides of the story.

OK — the London Daily Mirror is not what we call a paper of record, but the Saturday Review is almost certainly the one published in New York, and there was an issue on August 5th, 1961. That’s a good start. There certainly was a journal called Product Engineering, and I can find that it existed until at least 1957. But there doesn’t seem to be a copy anywhere in Australia. ‘Photochromism’ does exist, and so does a journal of the Canadian Ceramic Society. And I could even find a paper on photochromic silver halide glasses, but in another journal, and in 1977.

Photochromism has indeed been exploited, most notably in those sunglass lenses that darken as the intensity of the light increases, and in some toys, as well. Photochromic lenses were invented by Roger Araujo  in the 1960s at the Corning Glass Works in New York, so the dating is right.

Now there probably was a magazine called Spectrum in the 1960s, but the best-known one is an Adventist journal. There is another one that was published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, but it seems no longer to exist in that name, and there are others as well. No luck there. Chemical and Engineering News does exist, and I searched its database, but the only article I could find on photochromism was published in 2007.

The last reference is the best. There were people called Dessauer and Paris writing about photochromistry in the 1960s, and though they sound French they were probably American. Wiley Online tells us that there was a book with a very similar name, called Advances in Photochemistry, whose volume 1 was published in 1963. In it there is a chapter by these two guys called, simply, ‘Photochromistry’. It is quite short and could indeed have a footnote 8. But Wiley Online wanted me to pay $35 to find out, and my Scots ancestry rebelled.

I’ve done the work, and my guess is that this lovely story, which you can find other versions of, really happened this way. What would we do without the Internet?


Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Unfortunately only us oldies will “get” this one. I’ve just googled and heard the Andrews Sisters’ version on You Tube.

  • Malcolm Miller says:

    A delightful story which should be given as a cautionary tale to all budding scientists who believe that if there is a citation in a recognised journal, then the data is authentic.

  • PeterE says:

    Reminds me that jazz was invented in India with the composition of two great tunes: Ali Sandr’s raga time band and My papadum tol’ me.

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