Digital Projects

Situating Chemistry

Renewed interest has recently been given to eighteenth and early nineteenth-century science and technology as historians seek to understand the inter-connections between and circulation of material practices and knowledge responsible for building the modern world. Chemistry played a central role in this history, but remains in the shadows created by historians’ focus on the mechanical sciences. “Situating Chemistry, 1760-1840” is an international network for collaborative research, established in the autumn of 2012 to examine chemistry as a contextually situated, hybrid field of material and knowledge production, 1760-1840. During this period chemistry underwent three far-reaching changes:

  1. The conceptual transformation associated with Lavoisier
  2. Discipline construction and institutionalisation of research and teaching
  3. Taking a leading role in many of the key processes and industries of the first phase of industrialisation

The first two have often been uncritically conflated and termed the ‘Chemical Revolution’. However, beyond relying on a historically faulty notion of ‘applied science’, historians have generally failed to explore the interactions between these conceptual and disciplinary transformations and chemistry’s role in technological change and industrialization. The latter has also been termed the ‘Chemical Revolution’, but occupies a separate historiographical tradition. The failure to explore the interactions between these ‘Chemical Revolutions’ has limited our understanding of the processes whereby the emerging discipline of chemistry was constructed as a centre of intellectual brokerage and contributed to innovation in key industrial sectors, as well as the wider contexts in which they took place.

This project responds by investigating the sites where chemistry was practiced 1760-1840, and the networks of actors, instruments and materials that developed around these sites and linked them. Methodologically, the microhistorical analysis of sites and networks will break down the ahistorical separation between what has been called the two Chemical Revolutions. A wide range of sites and networks will be analysed, drawn from across Europe and its (former) colonies to reveal chemistry’s trans-national character, to increase the variety of environments under study and to realise the project’s comparative dimension. Research will be organized around a number of themes, including: chemistry and the city, chemistry and agriculture, chemistry and visual culture, chemistry and education, chemistry and materiality, chemistry and governance, chemistry and colonialism.

The project’s goal is to produce a number of coordinated publications, to develop an interactive database as well as to submit a European level research grant to fund further collaboration. For more information, contact Prof. dr. L.L. Roberts ( or John Perkins (

Enlightened Chemistry

Screen shot of Enlightenedchemistry.orgThe term project in my Spring 2014 Introduction to the History of Science class (HSCI 1003) at the University of Oklahoma was to transcribe several of Joseph Black’s chemical lectures and analyze them.  Using the Transribr [sic] distribution of Drupal, I built (the now decommissioned)  Working in groups of three, students translated the same eight lectures from each of three sets of Black’s chemical lecture:

  • The University of Cornell’s set from 1769-1770 (Film N4258)
  • The National Library of Medicine’s set from 1773-1774 (NLM MS B 2)
  • and The Chemical Heritage Foundation’s set from 1776 (QD14 .B533 1828)

We then used JuxtaCommons textual visualizations including the histogram, heat map, and side-by-side comparisons to identify possible errors in transcription.  Students reuploaded their revised transcriptions into JuxtaCommons to identify the true similarities and differences between the lecture manuscripts.  In comparing three sets of Black’s lectures, we hope to address a variety of questions:

  • Did the chemical nomenclature in Black’s lectures change over time?
  • Did Black modify or extend his lectures to include new research?
  • Who did Black reference and did those references change?
  • Was there any meaningful shift in the subjects covered or the amount of coverage given?

While I hoped that the students would find these differences, what we found instead was a surprising level of continuity between the three lecture sets.  In fact, as one of my students wrote in her analysis, “The majority of the content in all three lectures is identical.” Not only are the structure of the lectures in terms of sequence and content unchanged over the seven year range of the lectures, the exact wording is often the same.

The students did identify several minor changes in the examples used by Black and the people referenced.  I hope in the future to extend this project to allow for the transcription of more manuscripts.  I would like to chart Black’s lectures to see when he created each set and how long he went between revisions.  I still expect that we would find some nomenclatural shift in his presentation of the constituents of airs and his conceptualization of heat, though perhaps only in the 1780s and 90s.

For more information on this project, read my blog post.

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