In its collections, the National Museum of Science and Technology of Catalonia (mNACTEC) conserves objects of particular importance in the field of innovation and scientific and technological contributions. Some pieces are representative of the development and the improvement of society, like this disinfection boiler-cart, used to sterilise clothing and objects, and which helped halt the spread of epidemics at the start of last century.
In view of the current state of emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems appropriate to revisit which systems were already in use in the industrial period (19th and 20th centuries) to prevent the spread of the different epidemics which often broke out. At the time, it was easier to control these epidemics due to people’s limited mobility and the non-existent globalization.
Epidemics in the industrial era
In the 19th century, cholera epidemics which broke out in the country were linked to a lack of hygiene, so that the measures applied to fight them were collective social hygiene solutions rather than strictly medical ones.
The usual actions for fighting the spread of these illnesses were the disinfection of public spaces by whitening ceilings and walls; cleaning floors, windows and walls twice a day using chlorinated water; burning wooden objects used by those infected; the strict control and closure of borders, train stations and ports, with the creation of the health police, and fumigation with sulphur dioxide.
In the late 19th century different local cholera outbreaks - some especially violent - led to the purchase of disinfection boilers by many Catalan Town Councils. At the time, these were the newest invention for improving public health and preventing the
spread of epidemics. As early as 1893, the Government Ministry authorised the purchase of “three disinfection boilers required by health police”.
These boilers were, in fact, mobile steam generators (or locomobiles) which could be moved around the different health provinces on a cart drawn by two horses. A few years later these were used in parks, laboratories or disinfection centres with specialist personnel. The use of these disinfection boiler-carts was at its peak in the 1890s and the early 20th century.
Inventions like that conserved in the mNACTEC were made up of a burner and the boiler itself, with two concentric galvanized steel cylinders, one inside the other. Objects to be disinfected (clothing, chairs, personal objects, etc.) were placed in the inner cylinder while the steam which circulated was inside the space between the two cylinders, like an autoclave, with a circular hermetically sealed door on the back. It worked by boiling 45-50 litres of water with coal, resulting in steam temperatures of 110 to 112 ⁰C which, as the manuals of the time stated, “is enough to destroy all germs”.
The disinfection boiler-cart at the mNACTEC
The disinfection boiler-cart in the mNACTEC collections was in operation during the 1910s and 1920s around different small towns in Catalonia affected by cholera and smallpox epidemics, as well as the better-known Spanish flu, especially in the Girona region. The cart, with two people operating it, moved around these small towns, where the local residents dropped off their usual clothing for disinfection. Other larger towns built specific buildings for these disinfection tasks, as in the case of Terrassa in 1915.
The boiler conserved at mNACTEC, a Locomovil model, was manufactured by Casa Metzger around 1912-1913. This major company located in Barcelona, had been set up by Jewish brothers of Swiss origin José and Edmundo Metzger, who had settled there to trade in all sorts of devices relating to health, science, technology, construction, industrial machinery, laboratory and fire prevention.27 April 2020