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Goldbeater's skin is the processed outer membrane of the intestine of an animal, typically an ox, valued for its strength against tearing. The term derives from its traditional use as durable layers interleaved between sheets of gold stock during the process of making gold leaf by goldbeating, as a batch process producing many "leaves" at the same time. In the early modern production of airships, application of its high strength-to-weight ratio and reliability were crucial for building at least the largest examples.
To manufacture goldbeater's skin, the gut of oxen (or other cattle) is soaked in a dilute solution of potassium hydroxide, washed, stretched, beaten flat and thin, and treated chemically to prevent putrefaction. A pack of 1,000 pieces of goldbeater's skin requires the gut of about 400 oxen and is 1 inch (25 mm) thick.
Up to 120 sheets of gold laminated with goldbeater's skin can be beaten at the same time, since the skin is thin and elastic and does not tear under heavy goldbeating. The resultant thickness of gold leaf can be as small as 1 μm-thick.
Airtight test instruments
Joseph Thomas Clover invented an apparatus for measuring the inhalation of chloroform in 1862; it included a large reservoir bag, lined with goldbeater's skin to make it airtight, into which a known volume of liquid chloroform was injected, while its contraction or expansion was monitored.
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Old manuscripts repair
Due to its transparency, strength, and fairly uniform thickness, goldbeater's skin is also used to repair holes and tears in manuscripts written on vellum.
Construction of airships
Large quantities of goldbeater's skin were used to make the gas bags of early balloons created by the Royal Engineers at Chatham, Kent starting in 1881–82 culminating in 1883 with "The Heron", of 10,000 cu ft capacity. The method of preparing and making gas-tight joins in the skins was known only to a family from Alsatia called Weinling who were employed by the RE for many years. The British had a monopoly on the technique until around 1912 when the Germans adopted the material for the internal gas bags of the "Zeppelin" rigid airships, exhausting the available supply: about 200,000 sheets were used for a typical World War I Zeppelin, while the USS Shenandoah needed 750,000 sheets. The sheets were joined together and folded into impermeable layers.
Sealing of oboe mouthpieces
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, goldbeater's skin was also used as a material for condoms..
- Sykes, W.S. (1960), Essays on the First Hundred Years of Anaesthesia, Vol. 2, Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh. ISBN 0-443-02866-4, p. 8.
- Steadman, Mark (2006-05-01). "The Goldbeater, the Cow and the Airship". Post & Tele Museum, Denmark. Retrieved 2009-09-12.
- ItemID=210&SesssionID=68662662&code=0001000200010009&sid=290&stitle=Oboe%20Reed-making Goldbeaters' skin for Oboe - large - Oboe Reed-making - Britannia Reeds
- François Lebrun, Les "Funestes secrets" Les Collections de l'Histoire, 2nd quarter 2006, p. 63 ISSN 0182-2411
- Jack C. Thompson, Notes on the Manufacture of Goldbeater's Skin
- Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: Goldbeater's skin
- Robert Fuchs, The History and Biology of Parchment
- Chollet, L., Technical Section of Aeronautics "Balloon fabrics made of Goldbeater's skins" (PDF). (472 KB) December 1922