Shanghai Noon
Could you escape from jail using a wet shirt?

Note: these articles have been published in InfoChem, the supliment to Education in Chemistry produced by The Royal Society of Chemistry.
Many are based on the two BBC OU TV series - Hollywood Science

In the film Shanghai noon, Chon Wang (Jackie Chan), a chineseman in the US and his new-found friend, Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson) a small time robber, are trying to escape from an old style Wild West jail which has metal bars from ceiling to floor. Wang does a very odd thing. He takes off his jacket, tears it up into strips and pees on them. Holding them up he proclaims: ‘when the shirt gets wet it doesn’t break’. Then knotting some of the cloth around a pair of prison bars and using a broken off wooden chair leg as a lever, he tightens the knot which bends the bars so they can get through and escape! So is this possible, is wet cloth really stronger than dry cloth?

Down to the launderette
To start my investigations, I went down to the local launderette to ask the staff what they thought. They weren’t sure if wet clothes were stronger but they seemed to think that wet clothes were less likely to tear or get damaged in their machines (apart from wool perhaps). I then tested strips of cotton by hanging weights from them made from buckets which I could slowly fill with water (not pee) to make them heavier. On average, a heavier weight was required to break the wet cloth than the dry cloth. So the wet cloth did seem to be stronger. Also the leverage obtained by the cloth knot and wooden stick was enough to bend a steel bar 7 foot 3/4 inch long, similar to those used in jail in the film. (Note: I don’t think the jail-break stunt would have worked if there had been a horizontal bar welded about halfway up, as is the case in modern jails.)

And the chemistry?
Cotton and paper are mainly composed of cellulose, a very large molecule (a polymer) made up of several hundred glucose molecules linked by an O atom (see structure). Now wet paper is definitely not stronger than dry paper. Paper absorbs a lot of water, making it heavier and separating the fibres – so it falls apart. So what could be happening in the wet cotton fibres to make them stronger? If molecules attract each other, the resulting intermolecular forces can sometimes be considerable. In water, for example, hydrogen bonding is so strong that at room temperature and pressure it is a liquid rather than a gas. With this in mind, could the forces between the closely spaced cellulose molecules in the cloth fibres be enhanced by hydrogen bonding when wet? Could this explain the increased strength of Wang’s cloth?

Ask the experts
Recently, I was giving an end of conference talk to a group of professional scientists. Just for fun I described the Shanghai noon clip and asked them what they thought about the hydrogen bonding idea. I was amazed at the debate the question started! Some scientists thought the hydrogen bonding would be significant while others were equally adamant it could not be! The general opinion was that the molecules making up the cotton fibres were probably too widely and randomly spaced on a molecular scale for the short range of the intermolecular forces have an effect. So hydrogen bonding is probably unlikely to account for the increased strength of wet cloth. However, in cotton the cellulose fibres are not just pressed or glued together as they are in paper but are twisted around each other like a fine rope, making it very strong. So perhaps the most plausible explanation is that the water causes the fibres to swell, increasing the friction between them and thus making the cloth harder to tear .... which was, after all, the conclusion the staff in the local launderette came to!

How teachers can use these articles in a lesson

Why Hollywood Science

Open University Hollywood Science web site

Call for clips - do you have a film clip that needs investigating?

Jonathan would like to thank Robert Llewellyn, Gill Watson and Harry Kroto (Vega Trust), all the BBC teams, The Royal Society of Chemistry and all at the Open University.


Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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