Sweet, Sweet Polarimeter

KARIN CURLEY (this article was first published September 4, 2012)

For more From the Back of the Drawer, just click the logo.

For more From the Back of the Drawer, just click the logo.


Each week, we rummage through the dark corners of our kitchen drawers to bring you an enigmatic item. We ask you to guess what it is in our weekly From the From the Back of the Drawer puzzle. To enter this week’s puzzle, visit this page. To read more descriptions of past items, visit this page. And, don’t forget to donate your odd items to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

This week, we found a polarimeter!

While you probably won’t find this industrial tool in the back of your kitchen drawer, it is very important in the food, beverage, pharmaceutical and chemical industries—and therefore, slightly too scientifically complicated for this staffer to understand, but I’m giving it a shot. It is called a polarimeter. This particular one is known more specifically as a saccharimeter, a tool used by the sugar industry to measure the concentration and purity of sugar in a solution.  It works  by measuring the angle of rotation caused by passing polarized light through an optically active substance, like sugar. What does that mean exactly? We are not quite sure, but it gives us appreciation for the complex industries that provide us with the products we want and need, like quality sugar for our coffee. Nowadays, industries that rely on polarimetery have handy dandy digital polarimeters and saccharimeters (its called this when designed specifically for measuring sugar).  This polarimeter, on loan to the museum from Domino Sugar, was made by Franz Schmidt and Haensch. This Berlin-based  company specializing in laboratory instruments was founded in 1864 and is still in business today.

Our Rating: An important part of the history of the sugar industry, and a possible Jeopardy question.

Design: Obviously a digital saccharimeter is much easier to use, and less susceptible to human error, than these old manual ones, but those aren’t  as interesting and pretty  to look at in a museum in 100 years now are they? While this large old iron and brass saccharimeter might be bulky and obsolete, it is beautiful in a way that a plug in plastic one will never be.

Originality: The first polarimeters where manufactured in the 1830s.  This one if most likely from the early 20th century.  International Commission for Uniform Methods of Sugar Analysis is the international regulatory committee that governs the analysis of sugar.

Practicality: Obviously not practical for most as chefs and cooks, but good to know about—especially for the many sugar lovers among us.



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