Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science
A Historical Ontology
356 pp., 7 x 9 in, 38 illus.
- Published: May 31, 2018
- Published: March 2, 2007
A history of raw materials and chemical substances from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries that scrutinizes the modes of identification and classification used by chemists and learned practitioners of the period, examining the ways in which their practices and understanding of the material objects changed.
In the eighteenth century, chemistry was the science of materials. Chemists treated mundane raw materials and chemical substances as multidimensional objects of inquiry that could be investigated in both practical and theoretical contexts—as useful commodities, perceptible objects of nature, and entities with hidden and imperceptible features. In this history of materials, Ursula Klein and Wolfgang Lefèvre link chemical science with chemical technology, challenging our current understandings of objects in the history of science and the distinction between scientific and technological objects. They further show that chemists' experimental production and understanding of materials changed over time, first in the decades around 1700 and then around 1830, when mundane materials became clearly distinguished from true chemical substances. The authors approach their subject by scrutinizing the modes of identification and classification used by chemists and learned practitioners of the period. They find that chemists' classificatory practices especially were strikingly diverse. In scientific investigations, materials were classified either according to chemical composition or according to provenance and perceptible qualities. The authors further argue that chemists did not live in different worlds of materials before and after the Lavoisierian chemical revolution of the late eighteenth century. Their two main studies first explore the long tradition that informed Lavoisier's new nomenclature and method of classifying pure chemical substances and then describe the continuing classification of plant materials according to a pre-Lavoisierian scheme of provenance and perceptible qualities even after the chemical revolution, until a new mode of classification was accepted in the 1830s.
Chemistry is not just what chemists do; it is also and preeminently the science of material substances. In this important and novel book, Klein and Lefèvre explore the history of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century chemistry through three interwoven themes: what materials were ontologically, how they were classified, and how chemistry developed as the science of materials. They do all this with careful attention to language, teaching, and laboratory practice, and in the process broaden and enrich our understanding of chemistry before Lavoisier. That understanding leads in turn to a nuanced revisionist account of the chemical revolution and demonstrates the extent to which change was indebted to continuity.
Trevor Levere, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto
Tracing changes in taxonomy, chemical ontology, and chemical epistemology, and interconnecting all three with the concrete artisanal world of commerce and trade, the authors provide a convincing new understanding of how chemists' conceptions of the materials they were dealing with shifted over time. Klein and Lefèvre are nothing short of brilliant at detecting hidden presentism in certain aspects of previous historical work and providing a salutary new vision.
Alan J. Rocke, Henry Eldridge Bourne Professor of History, Case Western Reserve University, author of Nationalizing Science: Adolphe Wurtz and the Battle for French Chemistry