The NSS Bulletin - ISSN 1090-6924
Volume 51 Number 1: 66-70 - June 1989

A publication of the National Speleological Society

Some Historical Speculations on the Origin of Saltpeter
Warren C. Lewis, MD


The early history of saltpeter is reviewed with observations made on its natural occurrence and recovery. A number of ancient writers and chemists noted that saltpeter formed as a salty crust on stone and was found in loose earth in sites protected from excessive rain. It could be obtained by soaking these materials in cold water. It was found around manure piles and compost heaps. Later they observed that it would form, although slowly, when these conditons were duplicated by artificial means. The earth once leached of its mineral content under some circumstances retained the ability to form saltpeter. This was a source of continued speculation.

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