The 1950s and early 1960s were the age of miracle substances and products. Plastics, drugs, agrichemicals, nuclear power, transistors, hydrogen bombs, jet aeroplanes, television, cars with wings, computers, space rockets and many more marvels issued in abundance from the laboratories of science and its partner, technology. Popular Mechanics, an American magazine to which Anton subscribed, carried plans for a build-it-yourself laser – a technology which, as the article put it, had as yet no application. The magazine was full of these wonders. So were Marvel, DC and ACE comics, where unsuspected aberrations of the scientific project changed innocent and ‘perfectly normal’ Clark Kents and Peter Parkers into gods.

With no serious challengers, the makers of all these goods could afford to be cavalier about trivial matters like safety. Workers in some radioactive environments vied to get hot as fast as possible. Roads had no speed limits. Seat-belts were unknown. Many adults smoked, sprayed DDT in CFC-laden solvents and used benzene to clean spots on their clothing. Asbestos, the wonder-substance first brought to the attention of Westerners by Marco Polo, was still thought of as generally useful and was widely used. One day Anton took us to visit an abandoned asbestos mine near Barberton, where a strewn rubble of bright green and mauve soapstone held gleaming veins of the fibres; some of these strange rocks were added to my small collection, with which I played. During my years as an apprentice jeweller, all soldering was done on a pad of asbestos which sat under my nose on the workbench. When the afternoon sun shone through the window, it lit with a slight gleam the tiny fibres blown into the air by the pale flame.


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