Situating Chemistry

Renewed interest has recently been given to eighteenth and early nineteenth-century science and technology as historians seek to understand the inter-connections between and circulation of material practices and knowledge responsible for building the modern world. Chemistry played a central role in this history, but remains in the shadows created by historians’ focus on the mechanical sciences. “Situating Chemistry, 1760-1840” is an international network for collaborative research, established in the autumn of 2012 to examine chemistry as a contextually situated, hybrid field of material and knowledge production, 1760-1840. During this period chemistry underwent three far-reaching changes:

  1. The conceptual transformation associated with Lavoisier
  2. Discipline construction and institutionalisation of research and teaching
  3. Taking a leading role in many of the key processes and industries of the first phase of industrialisation

The first two have often been uncritically conflated and termed the ‘Chemical Revolution’. However, beyond relying on a historically faulty notion of ‘applied science’, historians have generally failed to explore the interactions between these conceptual and disciplinary transformations and chemistry’s role in technological change and industrialization. The latter has also been termed the ‘Chemical Revolution’, but occupies a separate historiographical tradition. The failure to explore the interactions between these ‘Chemical Revolutions’ has limited our understanding of the processes whereby the emerging discipline of chemistry was constructed as a centre of intellectual brokerage and contributed to innovation in key industrial sectors, as well as the wider contexts in which they took place.

This project responds by investigating the sites where chemistry was practiced 1760-1840, and the networks of actors, instruments and materials that developed around these sites and linked them. Methodologically, the microhistorical analysis of sites and networks will break down the ahistorical separation between what has been called the two Chemical Revolutions. A wide range of sites and networks will be analysed, drawn from across Europe and its (former) colonies to reveal chemistry’s trans-national character, to increase the variety of environments under study and to realise the project’s comparative dimension. Research will be organized around a number of themes, including: chemistry and the city, chemistry and agriculture, chemistry and visual culture, chemistry and education, chemistry and materiality, chemistry and governance, chemistry and colonialism.

The project’s goal is to produce a number of coordinated publications, to develop an interactive database as well as to submit a European level research grant to fund further collaboration. For more information, contact Prof. dr. L.L. Roberts (l.l.roberts@utwente.nl) or John Perkins (jperkins@brookes.ac.uk).