Technoscience avant la lettre

The systematic and stable interconnection of scientific and technological practices and institutions into a “technoscience” is usually considered as the outcome of developments in the twentieth century, with forerunners in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the time period before the late nineteenth century, according to the common view, there may have been exchanges of knowledge, skill, and instruments between savants experimenting at academic institutions and craftsmen and artisans producing in workshops, but this interaction did not result in an intricate entanglement of these two different cultures. Chemistry prior to the second half of the nineteenth century and the emergence of the synthetic-dye industry apparently fits this general picture. Although it has been acknowledged that chemical technology occasionally stimulated developments in eighteenth-century academic chemistry, and vice versa, chemical science and technology have largely been studied historically as two separate domains. By contrast, it was the central thesis of this project, sustained by previous historical studies, that long before the second half of the nineteenth century, chemical science and technology were strongly and systematically linked with each other. The project aimed to unravel these links, with a focus on the eighteenth century.

The interconnection of chemical science and technology was not merely promoted by a few individuals occupied with both scientific and technological enterprises. Rather, this interconnection was firmly established on the communal and institutional level of eighteenth-century chemistry. It was entrenched in a shared material culture that spanned from the academic laboratory to the chemical workshop, comprising material objects of inquiry, instruments, reagents, types of manipulations, and the site of experimentation. Comparable to the systematic and permanent alliances between science and technology in the twentieth century, eighteenth-century chemistry was an early form of technoscience. Unlike the later technoscientific alliances, however, this early form was not the result of a convergence of previously separated scientific and technological cultures and practices, but rather a hybrid scientific-technological endeavor from the very beginning of its institutionalization in late seventeenth-century Europe.

After the first successful steps were taken in the seventeenth century to institutionalize chemistry in academies, medical faculties, botanical gardens, and museums (such as the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford), in the eighteenth century chemistry was an established part of the intellectual world. Eighteenth-century chemists were teachers and professors, authors of learned books and experimental reports, members of academies and scientific societies, and visitors of coffee shops and salons. Yet, they differed markedly from other savants of the time; not only because they spent many hours of the day experimenting in the laboratory, but also because of their diverse technological and commercial activities. Among the eighteeenth-century European chemists were many apothecaries, metallurgical officials and consultants, inspectors of manufactories, members of state committees and technological boards, and entrepreneurs. Eighteenth-century chemists working at medical faculties, professional schools, and other academic institutions instructed their students about pharmaceutical techniques and various areas of practical, artisanal chemistry. In their laboratories they repeated artisanal operations and analyzed materials produced and applied in the chemical arts and crafts, using almost exclusively, in the first half of the eighteenth century, instruments shared with assayers, apothecaries, and other artisans.

Eighteenth-century chemists not only shared a few single instruments with apothecaries and other artisans, but also made use of an arsenal of instruments used in the arts and crafts. Their smelting and testing furnaces, bellows, crucibles, calcination dishes, and balances were similar to the instruments used by assayers. The same types of mortars, pestles, filters, vessels, boxes, glass tubes, vials, retorts, alembics, pelicans, receivers, and transmission vessels that academic chemists used in their laboratories were also used by distillers for producing nitric acid, alcoholic spirits, and fragrant oils, and by apothecaries for making medicines (see figures). There was even agreement on the size of vessels and instruments used by academic chemists, apothecaries, assayers, and distillers. The small-scale trial was intrinsic to assaying, which studied the composition of ores and other minerals for calculating the productiveness of mining and metallurgy. As pharmacy was still a handicraft in the eighteenth century, it also produced remedies on a small scale and for a comparatively small community of local consumers. The distilling of essential oils for the making of perfumes and alcoholic spirits was performed on a small scale too, even though there was enormous modification of distilling apparatus used by commercial distillers.

Unlike the core areas of eighteenth-century experimental philosophy, which became transformed into “experimental physics” in the early nineteenth century, chemistry was a culture in which experimentation took place on a more or less everyday basis at a specific workplace, the “laboratorium.” In the eighteenth century, the term “laboratory” referred mostly to workplaces where chemical and pharmaceutical operations were performed, and sometimes to those of assayers, distillers, and manufacturers of gunpowder, too. The Latin word laborare, from which laboratory is derived, points to its similarity with ordinary workshops. By contrast, in the core areas of experimental philosophy, “physical cabinets” and “physical theaters” (theatrum physicum) were established. As is more or less apparent from these latter terms, the institutions frequently served as locations for the collection and exhibition of instruments and for the demonstration of curious experimental effects, rather than as actual places of work. The resemblance of the material equipment of eighteenth-century chemical laboratories to that used at certain artisanal workplaces accorded with the fact that most chemists’ types of experimental techniques corresponded with artisanal operations, in particular those of apothecaries, assayers, and distillers. Dissolution, distillation, evaporation, precipitation, combustion, and smelting were types of operations performed by both chemists and artisans. As many of the material substances studied in academic chemists’ laboratories were bought from merchants and applied in practice by apothecaries and other artisans, the correspondence between the material culture of chemical science and chemical technology was quite strong.

  • (editor) Technoscientific Productivity. Special Issues of Perspectives on Science 13 (2005), no. 2 and 13 (2005), no. 3.
  • “Not a Pure Science: Chemistry in the 18th and 19th Centuries,” in: Science 306 (5.11.2004), pp. 981-82.
  • “Technoscience avant la letter,” In: Perspectives on Science 13 (2005), no. 2, pp. 226-266.
  • “Experimentelle Wissenschaften und Werkstättentradition,“ in: Gereon Wolters (ed.), Homo Sapiens und Homo Faber: Epistemische und technische Rationalität in Antike umd Gegenwart – Festschrift für Jürgen Mittelstraß, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005, pp. 113-132.