A few month ago – in April in fact - I wrote a spoof Classic Kit column about a legendary piece of kit, the Pardy Apparatus, a short path distillation device for air sensitive materials that was invented by Richard Pardy, a graduate student in Malcolm Green’s group at Oxford. It provided an opportunity for me to write something utterly ridiculous that was tempered only by the length constraints of article. The portrait was taken from an old Departmental group photo here at UCL, much to the bemusement of some of my colleagues. The diagram, which I had hoped to scan from Pardy’s D. Phil. thesis turned out not to exist. So I simply scrawled something on a paper napkin and scanned that. The biography of Pardy was a wild fantasy, and I am grateful to him for being such a good sport. But then, many years ago, when I met him at a party he had said that he had always dreamt of having a piece of kit named after him.
To my delight,s everal people were taken in, including a very eminent Professor here in the UK. A couple wrote in complaining that they had used similar devices long before Pardy and felt that this should be noted. Spoof article aside, they were totally correct. Short path distillation devices, also known as molecular stills, have a long and noble history, probably longer than most people imagine.
Historians have spent at least one hundred years trying to establish when alcohol was first distilled. One of the most readable and comprehensive sources is Joseph Needham’s magisterial (there is no other word) series “Science and Civilization in China”. I was incredibly fortunate last year when the widow of one of our alumni invited me to pick out books from her late husband’s collection of several thousand (!!) books. To my astonishment there were about 15 volumes of Needham there which have provided endless hours of browsing, plus innumerable references to the primary literature.It was from Needham’s five volume section on “Spagyrical Discovery” (alchemy to you and me) that I learned of the mongolian still, the way in which the horse-riders of Asia produced their hooch. The construction is very simple – the mash/beer is placed in a bowl over the fire. A second bowl is paced on a shelf above the first. And the entire assembly is enclosed by a hood which includes a third bowl, filled with cold water that acts as a condenser. The distillate drips down into the middle bowl. Needham then goes on to describe still design over the next 1500 years in loving detail more or less ending with Hickman’s still. This, Needham remarks, is a rediscovery of an ancient design.
The name, I already knew, as I had once used something like it as an undergraduate but I needed to know more. It proved easy to find his publications and patents – he was prolific throughout his career. There were also numerous references to the impact that he had made in his years at Kodak, where with the invention of his still he single-handedly made possible a whole new industry, by demonstrating that he could distil Vitamin A in excellent yield from cod liver oil.
But nowhere could I find a photograph of him or any information about his family. I feared for a while that I might be stuck in a dead end. But then I found a webpage written by Andrew Davidhazy which mentioned that Hickman had taken him on as a young apprentice to film and photograph solvent stills. I wrote to Andy and got an almost instant reply. He had spent quite a bit of time making high speed films of boiling solvents with Hickman and had fond memories of Hickman, who, he said, had been an important formative influence in his life.David also sent me a couple of pictures of himself with Hickman and mentioned that he was still in touch with Hickman’s son Bryan. To my delight not only did Bryan then send me photos of his father but he also scanned three chapters of memoirs which tell the story of his university and early Kodak years. They are a complete delight and give a real insight into what an amusing raconteur Hickman must have been, but also a real sense of his manic energy and bouts of depression.
Bryan has very kindly let me post the three files below. I found them laugh out loud funny, and I hope that some of you, after reading this month’s Classic Kit column, will spend a little time leafing through these stories. They will take you back to a bygone age. For those of you who are chemists, there is plenty of chemical insanity, in these cautious times, to savour. Enjoy.