Chemical Formulas as Paper Tools

Chemical Formulas as Paper Tools

From the late 1820s onward, chemical formulas (such as H2O for water), introduced by Jacob Berzelius in 1813 as a shorthand for representing the composition of inorganic compounds according to the theory of proportions, became enormously productive paper tools for representing experimentally explored chemical reactions in organic chemistry, for modeling the constitution of organic substances and for creating novel modes of their classification. In the 1830s French and German chemists' experiments and co-ordinated work on paper with chemical formulas generated a new concept and a new practical research agenda, “substitution,” which thoroughly altered the material culture of organic chemistry by creating a new world of synthetic organic laboratory substances. The project, which has been completed by a monograph currently in press by Stanford University Press (entitled Experiments, Models, Paper Tools: Cultures of Organic Chemistry in the Nineteenth Century), studied these historical changes of European organic chemistry between the late 1820s and the early 1840s, along with a semiotic and epistemological analysis of Berzelian formulas and their application as paper tools.

  A  central argument of the book is that chemists began applying chemical formulas not because they believed in the truth of disembodied theory, and not as a passive medium for expressing and illustrating extant knowledge, but rather as productive tools on paper or “paper tools” for achieving new goals. The notion of “paper tools” highlights 19th-century chemists' pragmatism towards high-level theories and their use of such theories in practice for conducting experimental research and for classification. It further serves to focus historical analysis and reconstruction on the semiotic, material and performative aspects of representation, model building and conceptual development. Paper tools share many features with laboratory tools and performances, without being identical to them. They are material devices in a semiotic sense, that is, they are visible and maneuverable marks on paper. Their manipulation is guided and constrained by their syntax and social rules of application, rather than being performed at will, just as the practical application of a physical tool is guided and constrained by technical design and collectively shared skills. Paper tools such as chemical formulas were applied by scientists as unquestioned implements for constructing chemical models. So too with laboratory instruments which, once stabilized, no longer are epistemically relevant in themselves but used as resources for new practices and goals. In the course of research such stabilized tools, paper tools or laboratory tools, may be re-opened to scientific inquiry, for example when previous impurities become meaningful signals of a newly circumscribed scientific object. In case of chemical formulas this happened repeatedly, the first time in the 1830s with the introduction of the concept of substitution. Any kind of tool may be developed in a variety of forms, and it may fulfill many different functions not foreseen by its inventor.