The Chemical Educator, Vol. 6, No. 4, S1430-4171(01)04494-5, 10.1007/s00897000494a, © 2001 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry. Frederic L. Homes and Trevor H. Levere, Editors. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass., 2000. £34.50. xvii + 415 pp. ISBN 0-262-08282-9.
Hugh Cartwright, Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory, Oxford University, Hugh.Cartwright@chem.ox.ac.uk
Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry is a collection of fourteen essays that focus on the development of the tools and methods of science. The authors, who have a broad range of academic backgrounds in chemistry and the history of science, are divided roughly evenly between North American and European universities.
It is by no means obvious that a book about chemistry equipment is going to be a riveting read (except perhaps for science historians). However, each author covers a different period or aspect of the evolution of instrumentation, and they bring to the book various perspectives and writing styles. This variety of styles does much to make the topic palatable. Indeed, the way in which modern instruments have developed from the crude apparatus available to the alchemists turns out to be far more fascinating than one might at first expect.
The book takes the reader on a scientific adventure from the alchemists to the start of the twentieth century. While it is ostensibly concerned just with instruments and how they were developed and used, it is inevitably also about the instrument makers and the arguments in which they became embroiled. The evolution of instruments is thus interwoven with the history of contemporary scientists.
An illustration of this intermixing of science and personalities is the controversy and confusion surrounding the development of the thermometer and its differing scales, which involved numerous scientists. It is not hard to appreciate that even the meaning of a thermometer reading was uncertain for a long period. Boerhaave, for example, was not alone in believing that a thermometer would measure the amount of heat in a body rather than its temperature. He argued that: “…common sense … manifestly shews that iron in winter is colder than feathers and quicksilver than alcohol.” Quite a persuasive argument at the time, one imagines. John Robison pointed out that: “The experience of more than a century had made us consider the thermometer as a sure and accurate indicator of heat.” Such fundamental misconceptions were common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A neat contrast to the uncertainty of these times is provided by the final chapter in the book, “The physical chemistry of Michael Polanyi,” covering fundamental work in early X‑ray crystallography that had a profound influence on modern chemistry.
For the professional chemist much of the interest of this book will be in learning how instrumentation crucial to contemporary scientific theory was developed. Advances in instrumentation encouraged the refinement of theory, but, in a cyclic process, this in turn lead to increasingly sophisticated and powerful instrumentation.
Readers with less of an interest in the equipment may find that the story centers more on the scientists themselves. We have the sometimes prickly, yet scientifically productive, relationship between Berzelius and Liebig, Berzelius asking his (temporarily) former friend to “… stop being a chemical executioner.” Bérard criticizes Thomson as having “… certainly been deceived in his calculation of the composition of an oxalate of ‘strontian’ …,” while Thomson counters—politely but firmly—that Bérard’s results “… are in general more erroneous than mine …” One detects more than professional differences of opinion below the surface.
There are appearances from Polanyi and Liebig, Bragg and Bunsen, Hales, Boyle, Norton, Lavoisier, Fahrenheit, Davy, Wollaston, Dalton, Noble, and many others; even Philip VI of France appears in a cameo role. These scientists flesh out what might otherwise have been a less interesting tale of inspired developments, surrounded by engineering flops and dead ends.
The personalities have a very direct role to play, since although this is a book about equipment, it is also inevitably about how individual scientists played their part in the creation of modern scientific theory. Thus, Melvyn Usselman’s chapter brings William Hyde Wollaston out of the shadows—a former doctor whose name few chemistry undergraduates will recognize, but whose influence on the development of chemical theory early in the nineteenth century was considerable.
Most of the relatively small number of illustrations are line drawings of scientific equipment. While this helps to establish a historical feel for the book, I was disappointed that there are few photographs of original equipment. The quantity of historical scientific equipment that survives in good condition is not great, but some fascinating pieces still remain in museums in Paris, Milan, Oxford, and elsewhere. Photographs of real equipment, in addition to drawings, help to give one an idea of how the equipment actually looked, and a further reason to appreciate the skill of those who made it. It is a pity that few of the authors have chosen to take advantage of the opportunities the existence of this equipment provides.
However, this is a minor quibble. Instruments and Experiments in the History of Chemistry is authoritative, engrossing, and above all, readable. History it undoubtedly is, but history brought to life in a way that shows how some of the most brilliant minds, and the most skilled workers of their time, carved scientific theory out of almost nothing. A fascinating read for those interested in the development of science.