There are still a few areas of central London which seem a little short on good cafés. One such area lies just east of Covent Garden. So it was very fortunate that, on arranging to meet a friend nearby, I came across E&J’s Pantry on Endell St. The coffee is from Nude roastery and the interior, while not exactly spacious is large enough that we were able to sit undisturbed for quite some time. Along with good coffee, they serve lovely cakes which (according to their website) are made in their own kitchen. This is presumably why they could tell me confidently which cakes were nut free. (Those who follow @thinking_bean on Twitter may know that this is a bit of a hot topic for me.) I enjoyed a very good Long Black and a cake, before sitting back and taking in the surroundings.
On one of the walls inside E&J’s Pantry are a series of photographs. Each photograph is suspended by a thin thread from a rail near the ceiling. The observation reminded me of spiders webs and the (often heard) claim that spider silk is a natural material that is “stronger than steel”.
Unfortunately, the claim that “spider silk” is stronger than steel is a little disingenuous. For a start, there are many forms of spider silk. A ‘typical’ orb spider for example, will combine at least four types of silk to make a web. Secondly, even for the main type of structural silk (Major ampullate), the statement that it is stronger than steel is sadly pushing it a bit. The issue is that it depends on exactly how you define ‘stronger’ and the species of spider that makes the silk. Spider silk can be comparable to steel in terms of its tensile stress (how much it takes to break it), but it is when it is compared to steel based additionally on the weight of the material that spider silk can be considered ‘stronger‘. When you combine this with the fact that spider silk is more environmentally friendly (and biodegradable) than man-made comparable fibres such as Kevlar, it is clear why research is being done into understanding, and synthesising, spider silk.
A question arises. If it is so strong and so lightweight, why don’t we farm the spiders to harvest the silk? Wouldn’t this be quicker than trying to synthesise it? Clearly we weren’t the first to think this and a farmer in North Carolina, USA, tried in the 1930s. Unsurprisingly, there were issues. Firstly, it took 57000 spiders to produce 0.45 Kg (1 lb) of spider silk. Secondly, if they weren’t kept in (expensive) solitary confinement, they ate each other. It seems that the N. Carolina spider farm was not a commercial success. However, as described in the New Yorker (8th Feb, 1941), a certain Miss Mary Pfeifer did harvest spider silk in the first half of the twentieth century, for use as cross hairs in targets for surveyors and, more sinisterly, bombers. Glass engraving at the time was not fine enough for making the cross hairs. The thinnest line that could be made by a diamond cutter into glass was about double the diameter of the silk from spiders webs and so spider silk had an obvious ‘niche’ market.
In 1941, Pfeifer would pay “small boys” from the neighbourhood 15 cents for each useable spider that they caught and brought to her. She would then harvest the silk and wind it onto spools ready for use in target sights. Since then we have developed nanofabrication techniques which mean that very thin strands of metal (such as platinum) can be positioned onto the lenses. Continuous strips of metal of around 10 nm thickness (this is one thousandth of the width of a spider silk) can be routinely deposited. Through the development of these and similar manufacturing techniques we no longer need spider silk for use in cross hairs. It is probable that the market cornered by Mary Pfeifer no longer exists.
Spider silk however remains one of many areas where, by studying nature we get clues as to how to overcome various technological challenges. Sometimes devices possibilities are obvious, such as with the opportunity of synthesising material with the strength to mass ratio of spider silk. Sometimes however devices are a long way off. It would be a shame if we prioritised research into devices at the expense of appreciating the ingenuity of nature’s own solutions to its problems. As the story of Mary Pfeifer shows, sometimes today’s obvious devices are not those of tomorrow, who knows where research done purely out of curiosity would lead us.
E&J’s Pantry is at 61 Endell Street, WC2H 9AJ
More information about spiders webs can be found in “Spider Silk”, L Brunetta and CL Craig, Yale University Press, 2010