Mr. Thiselton Dyer has rendered a great service, not only to botanists, but also to physicists and mineralogists, by recalling attention to the very interesting substance known as "tabasheer." As he truly states, very little fresh information has been published on the subject during recent years, a circumstance for which I can only account by the fact that botanists may justly feel some doubt as to whether it belongs to the vegetable kingdom, while mineralogists seem to have equal ground for hesitation in accepting it as a member of the mineral kingdom.
It is very interesting to hear that so able a physiologist as Prof. Cohn intends to investigate the conditions under which living plants separate this substance from their tissues. That unicellular algae, like the Diatomaceae, living in a medium which may contain only one part in 10,000 by weight of dissolved silica, or even less than that amount, should be able to separate this substance to form their exquisitely ornamented frustules is one of the most striking facts in natural history, whether we regard it in its physiological or its chemical aspects.
Sir David Brewster long ago pointed out the remarkable physical characters presented by the curious product of the vegetable world known as "tabasheer," though so far as I can find out it has not in recent years received that attention from physicists which the experiments and observations of the great Scotch philosopher show it to be worthy of.
Tabasheer seems to stand in the same relation to the mineral kingdom as do ambers and pearls. It is in fact an opal formed under somewhat remarkable and anomalous conditions which we are able to study; and in this aspect I have for some time past been devoting a considerable amount of attention to the minute structure of the substance by making thin sections and examining them under the microscope. It may be as well, perhaps, to give a short sketch of the information upon the subject which I have up to the present time been able to obtain, and in this way to call attention to points upon which further research seems to be necessary.
From time immemorial tabasheer has enjoyed a very high reputation in Eastern countries as a drug. Its supposed medicinal virtues, like those of the fossil teeth of China and the belemnites ("thunderbolts") of this country, seem to have been suggested by the peculiarity of its mode of occurrence. A knowledge of the substance was introduced into Western Europe by the Arabian physicians, and the name by which the substance is generally known is said to be of Arabic origin. Much of the material which under the name of "tabasheer" finds its way to Syria and Turkey is said, however, to be fictitious or adulterated.
In 1788 Dr. Patrick Russell, F.R.S., then resident at Vizagapatam, wrote a letter to Sir Joseph Banks in which he gave an account of all the facts which he had been able to collect with respect to this curious substance and its mode of occurrence, and his interesting letter was published in the Philosophical Transactions for 1790 (vol. lxxx., p. 273).
Tabasheer is said to be sometimes found among the ashes of bamboos that have been set on fire (by mutual friction?). Ordinarily, however, it is sought for by splitting open those bamboo stems which give a rattling sound when shaken. Such rattling sounds do not, however, afford infallible criteria as to the presence or absence of tabasheer in a bamboo, for where the quantity is small it is often found to be closely adherent to the bottom and sides of the cavity. Tabasheer is by no means found in all stems or in all joints of the same stem of the bamboos. Whether certain species produce it in greater abundance than others, and what is the influence of soil, situation, and season upon the production of the substance, are questions which do not seem as yet to have been accurately investigated.
Dr. Russell found that the bamboos which produce tabasheer often contain a fluid, usually clear, transparent, and colorless or of greenish tint, but sometimes thicker and of a white color, and at other times darker and of the consistency of honey. Occasionally the thicker varieties were found passing into a solid state, and forming tabasheer.
Dr. Russell performed the interesting experiment of drawing off the liquid from the bamboo stem and allowing it to stand in stoppered bottles. A "whitish, cottony sediment" was formed at the bottom, with a thin film of the same kind at the top. When the whole was well shaken together and allowed to evaporate, it left a residue of a whitish brown color resembling the inferior kinds of tabasheer. By splitting up different joints of bamboo Dr. Russell was also able to satisfy himself of the gradual deposition within them of the solid tabasheer by the evaporation of the liquid solvent.
In 1791, Mr. James Louis Macie, F.R.S. (who afterward took the name of Smithson), gave an account of his examination of the properties of the specimens of tabasheer sent home by Dr. Russell (Phil. Trans., vol. lxxxi., 1791, p. 368). These specimens came from Vellore, Hyderabad, Masulipatam, and other localities in India. They were submitted to a number of tests which induced Mr. Macie to believe that they consisted principally of silica, but that before calcination some vegetable matter must have been present. A determination of the specific gravity of the substance by Mr. Macie gave 2.188 as the result. Another determination by Mr. Cavendish gave 2.169.
In this same paper it is stated that a bamboo grown in a hot-house at Islington gave a rattling noise, and on being split open by Sir Joseph Banks yielded, not an ordinary tabasheer, but a small pebble about the size of half a pea, externally of a dark brown or black color, and within of a reddish brown tint. This stone is said to have been so hard as to cut glass, and to have been in parts of a crystalline structure. Its behavior with reagents was found to be different in many respects from that of the ordinary tabasheer; and it was proved to contain silica and iron. The specimen is referred to in a letter to Berthollet published in the Annales de Chimie for the same year (October, 1791). There may be some doubt as to whether this specimen was really of the nature of tabasheer. If such were the case, it would seem to have been a tabasheer in which a crystalline structure had begun to be set up.