Chemists from the past

For this week I decided to take the Market Subway down to 5th street and walk down Chestnut Street to the Museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.  The museum is something like what you might see in a science laboratory, from centuries ago.  There were instruments and tools from the times of alchemy to nanotechnology.  In addition the museum displayed numerous exhibits that told the history of science in Philadelphia.

The foundation’s motto is that they “Tell the Story of Chemistry,” so if you are currently taking any chemistry courses, this may be the museum for you.  I remember when I took Chemistry: the Study of Matter, as a sophomore and I found many similarities between what I learned in the course and the types of exhibits that caught my eye in the museum.

One exhibit that I enjoyed was about the use of chemicals to make color dyes in the past.  It said that methods were standardized when colors were being made by different instruments.   In the early 1900s, the development of instruments could be used to quickly and quantitatively characterize color.  You can see the wide range of colors that were possible in that era by the display in the exhibit (on the left).

The exhibit also said that according to the 19th century the art of dyeing was so complex that it was a secret that was easy to keep.  The recipes of the color dyes consisted of plants, minerals, shellfish, and insects.  The results also varied by fabrics, which I found to be an interesting detail.  There was an example of a dye-product in the museum as shown below.  The Museum said that the art of dyeing material was successful, especially in the United States as there were 19 million tons of dyestuff available.

I also liked the exhibit that highlighted the history of rocks and minerals.  In the early 19th century chemists used electrolysis to isolate certain elements from their more stable compound forms such as the minerals shown in the museum (amazonite and potassium).  The rocks appeared like crystals and it was said in the exhibit that the elements would not actually appear in a pure state in nature because they are so chemically reactive.

One of the last exhibits that I took a look at was about chemistry lectures.  It even had drawings of what lectures looked like at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 19th century.  I found it interesting to compare the lectures of the time to the lectures that we have today.  The exhibit said that there were “astonishing explosions, intoxicating gases, and dreadful stink  While those aspects are a little different than the classes that I’ve had in my intro chemistry courses, I thought the lectures were similar because it said that students, like today, learned from demonstration and often through watching their instructors replicate famous experiments.

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