Silica. = 86.387

Iron oxide. = 0.424

Lime. = 0.244

Potash. = 4.806

Organic matter. = 0.507

Water. = 7.632


Total. 100.000 

Apart from the question of its singular mode of origin, however, and its remarkable and anomalous physical properties, tabasheer is of much interest to mineralogists and geologists. All the varieties hitherto examined, with the exception of the peculiar one from the Andes, are in composition and physical characters true opals. This is the case with all the Indian and Java varieties. They consist essentially of silica in its colloidal form, the water, lime, potash, and organic matter being as small and variable in amount as in the mineral opals; and, as in them, these substances must be regarded merely as mechanical impurities.

The tabasheers must be studied in their relations on the one hand with certain varieties of the natural semi-opals, hydrophanes, beekites, and floatstones, some of which they closely resemble in their physical characters, and on the other hand with specimens of artificially deposited colloid silica formed under different conditions. Prof. Church, who has so successfully studied the beekites, informs me that some of those remarkable bodies present singular points of analogy with tabasheer.

By the study of thin sections I have, during several years, been endeavoring to trace the minute structure of some of these substances. In no class of materials is it more necessary to guard one's self against errors of observation arising from changes induced in the substance during the operations which are necessary to the preparation of transparent sections of hard substances. Unfortunately, too, it is the custom of the natives to prepare the substance for the market by an imperfect calcination, and hitherto I have only been able to study specimens procured in the markets which have been subjected to this process. It is obviously desirable, before attempting to interpret the structures exhibited, under the microscope, to compare the fresh and uncalcined materials with those that have been more or less altered by heat.

Tabasheer would seem, from Brewster's experiments, to be a very intimate admixture of two and a half parts of air with one part of colloidal silica. The interspaces filled with air appear, at all events, in most cases, to be so minute that they cannot be detected by the highest powers of the microscope which I have been able to employ. It is this intimate admixture of a solid with a gas which probably gives rise to the curious and anomalous properties exhibited by this singular substance.

The ultra-microscopical vesicles filled with air in all probability give rise to the opalescence which is so marked a property of the substance. Their size is such as to scatter and throw back the rays at the blue end of the spectrum and to transmit those at the red end.

When the vesicles of the substance are filled with Canada balsam, and a thin slice is cut from it, this opalescence comes out in the most striking manner. Very thin sections are of a rich orange yellow by transmitted light, and a delicate blue tint by reflected light. I do not know of any substance which in such thin films displays such striking opalescence.

That the excessively low refractive power of tabasheer is connected with the mechanical admixture of the colloidal silica with air seems to be proved by the experiments of Brewster, showing that with increase of density there was an increase in the refractive index from 1.111 in specimens of the lowest specific gravity to 1.182 in those of the highest specific gravity. Where the surface was hard and dense, Brewster found the refractive index to approach that of semi opal. The wonderful thing is that a substance so full of cavities containing gas should nevertheless be transparent.

By the kindness of Mr. F. Rutley, F.G.S., I am able to supply a drawing taken from one of my sections of tabasheer.

The accompanying woodcut gives some idea of the interesting structures exhibited in some sections of tabasheer, though much of the delicacy and fidelity of the original drawing has been lost in transferring it to the wood.

In this particular case, the faint punctation of the surface may possibly indicate the presence of air vesicles of a size sufficiently great to be visible under the microscope. But in many other instances I have failed to detect any such indication, even with much higher powers. The small ramifying tubules might at first sight be taken for some traces of a vegetable tissue, but my colleague, Dr. Scott, assures me that they do not in the least resemble any tissue found in the bamboo. I have myself no doubt that it is an inorganic structure. It is not improbably analogous to the peculiar ramifying tubules formed in a solution of water glass when a crystal of copper sulphate is suspended in it, as shown by Dr. Heaton (Proc. Brit. Assoc., 1869, p. 127). Similar forms also occur on a larger scale in some agates, and the artificial cells of Traube may probably be regarded as analogous phenomena.

The aggregates of globular bodies seen in the section so greatly resemble the globulites of slags and natural glasses, and in their arrangement so forcibly recall the structures seen in the well known pitchstone of Corriegills in Arran, that one is tempted to regard them as indicating the beginnings of the development of crystalline structure in the tabasheer. But I have good grounds for believing the structure to have a totally different origin. They seem in fact to be the portions of the mass which the fluid Canada balsam has not succeeded in penetrating. By heating they may be made to grow outward, and as more balsam is imbibed they gradually diminish, and finally disappear.

I must postpone till a future occasion a discussion of all the structures of this remarkable substance and of the resemblances and differences which they present to the mineral opals on the one hand, and to those of the opals of animal origin found in sponge spicules, radiolarians, and the rocks formed from them, some of which have recently been admirably investigated by Dr. G.J. Hinde (Phil. Trans., 1885, pp. 425-83).

I cannot, however, but think that it would be of the greatest service to botanists, physicists, and mineralogists alike, if some resident in India would resume the investigations so admirably commenced by Dr. Patrick Russell nearly a century ago; and it is in the hope of inducing some one to undertake this task that I have put together these notes. There are certain problems with regard to the mode of occurrence of this singular substance which could only be solved by an investigator in the country where it is found.



Most parcels of the commercial tabasheer appear to contain different varieties, from the white, opaque, chalk like forms through the translucent kinds to those that are perfectly transparent. It would be of much interest if the exact relation and modes of origin of these different varieties could be traced. It would also be important to determine if Brewster was right in his conclusion that the particular internodes of a bamboo which contain tabasheer always have their inner lining tissue rent or injured. The repetition of Dr. Russell's experiment of drawing off the liquids from the joints of bamboos and allowing them to evaporate is also greatly to be desired. My colleague, Prof. Rucker, F.R.S., has kindly undertaken to re-examine the results arrived at by Brewster in the light of more recent physical investigations, and I doubt not that some of the curious problems suggested by this very remarkable substance may ere long find a solution.