Columbia, Fourth Floor 03 Nov 2018 Organized Session
Physical Sciences 09:00 - 11:45

In his First Part of a Dictionary of Chemistry (1789), the Scottish chemist James Keir claimed, ‘The progress of Chemistry within the last twenty years has been more rapid than…any science in an equal period.’ Around the mid-eighteenth century onwards, it is no surprise then to see the principles and practices of chemistry applied to ‘every object of human pursuits, political, commercial, and philosophical.’ As recent historical studies have shown, analyzing and producing substances in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries encompassed a variety of different sites and practitioners.

This panel traces the ‘making and knowing’ that occurred outside of the brick-and-mortar educational and institutional chemical laboratories from 1750 to 1850. Intentionally engaging with current research in material culture, production and governance, and chemistry and the marketplace, these papers argue that fields, factories, and mines across Asia, Europe, and North America were vital spaces for chemical inquiry, material production, and commercial transformations. Government intervention in supporting the new chemistry varied according to region. Nevertheless, most chemists worked to gain respect for their novel methods of thought and practice that took them outside of the traditional laboratory—apparatus and skills were made portable for agricultural inquiry, chemical commodities were tested and improved in private manufactories, and new analytical techniques prepared products for international markets.. The chemistry of the field and factory was often constrained by local resources and knowledge, but it was also a subject informed by cosmopolitan networks of ideas and materials. 

Organized by Kristen Schranz (University of Toronto)

Farms as Laboratories: Chemists in Agriculture and the Beginning of Field-Laboratories, 1750-1830
09:00 - 09:30

‘The soil is the laboratory in which the food [of the plants] is prepared.’

(Humphry Davy, 1813)

In the mid-eighteenth century, chemists started to explore and describe agricultural processes in terms of chemical methods and principles. The utilitarianism of Enlightenment thought in Europe and North America incited these chemists to package their knowledge as both useful and practical, which in turn helped them to gain public recognition and acceptance. To avoid being labeled mere theorists, they had to leave their laboratory buildings to study the farmer's field. They undertook individual experiments in pots and performed medium-sized cultivation trials in gardens and greenhouses. Some of them, such as Johann Gottschalk Wallerius and William Cullen, carried out trials on their own farms. Others like the instructor Heinrich Einhof at the Agricultural Academy in Möglin, Germany used land owned by educational institutions to pursue their inquiries. Engaging with other like-minded philosophers, big landowners, and farmers in the widespread Republic of Letters, chemists even had different types of plants and soil samples sent to them. These chemists not only brought their view of nature to bear on agriculture, they also brought chemical instruments and reagents from the laboratory to the field. For example, in 1805 Humphry Davy developed a suitable kit for outdoor soil analyses. Overall, this paper explores how chemists transformed the conception of a field as a place of toil and unpredictable produce to a space of precise and practical chemical inquiry. The farmer’s field had become a viable laboratory.

Alum Analysis in Europe, 1750-1810
09:30 - 10:00

The production of alum crystal constituted a major manufacturing and international trading market in Europe from late medieval times onward. Its major use was as a mordant, a dye fixative, which had the further property of brightening the colours which it fixed. It had additional uses in leather tanning, paper-making, and medicine. From its early days in the Papal States, where the ‘Roman Alum’ produced in Tolfa supported large communities of miners and traders, its manufacture spread to the German states, to Spain, Sweden, France and Britain. 

The process of alum crystal production was a well-understood technique, despite the underlying chemical complexity of the several stages of production, and it appears to be the case that the chemistry of alum and its crystalline form only started to receive sustained attention from chemists around the mid-eighteenth century. This started with Stahl, then continued in Germany in the work of Pott, Marggraf and Klaproth. In Sweden it received further analytical attention from Bergman, and latterly, in the 1790’s and early 1800’s, from the French chemists Chaptal (by that time himself a manufacturer of alum crystal), Vauquelin, Thenard and Roard. My paper surveys this sequence of analytical attention to alum, differentiating the various motives for and modes of investigation exhibited by chemical analysis, and the understandings it produced. It examines particularly the complex of sites and skills which connected factories, fixatives and dyes with analytical technique, and on the competitive intensification in the international alum market which focused and shaped this analytical attention.

From the Fields of India to the Factories of England: Helenus Scott, James Keir, and the Case of the Indian Alkali
10:00 - 10:30

In the 1780s and 1790s, the East India Company surgeon Helenus Scott sent specimens of Indian alkali from Bombay to England. He had observed the local population procuring the substance from brown earth and making it into soap. Recognizing Britain’s need for alkali in the arts, Scott petitioned the Court of Directors of the East India Company to bring the material to England. What was useful in the fields of India, however, was not guaranteed to be beneficial in the factories of England. Contacting the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Scott incited trials by British chemists and manufacturers who confirmed the potential utility of the Indian alkali. From his chemical manufactory, James Keir reported on the strength and purity of the material as ideal for local plate glass and hard soap. Nevertheless, Keir tempered his optimism by saying that most English manufacturers were wary of new raw materials that might injure their products. This paper teases out the complexities of ‘translating’ a material across geographic regions by acknowledging the cosmopolitan yet local nature of Indian alkali. It is also a narrative that contributes to our understanding of Europe’s ‘Industrial Enlightenment’, which involved engagement with products and processes from India. Scott contrasted the ‘experience of India’ with the ‘science of Europe’, but both labels signify equally important ways of knowing. The case of Scott’s alkali also emphasizes the governing role of institutions in circulating useful substances from East to West.

Universität Regensburg, Wissenschaftsgeschichte / History of Science
University of Oxford
University of Toronto
Boston College


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