While attending a workshop on eighteenth-century agricultural chemistry last March, I agreed to build an online database of sites of chemistry that were active from 1760-1840.  John Perkins had conceptualized a database of geographically located sites of chemistry like industrial factories, chemical laboratories, and university lecture halls.  Using this online database with about thirteen fields, users could record the beginning and end dates of a site along with the location, people involved, and the materials and processes used at the sites.  I originally thought we would build something in a Google Fusion Table over the course of a couple of weeks.

WorldmapA little more than a year later, I am working on version 1.2 of SituatingChemistry.org.  The database has evolved from our original table with thirteen fields, to a relational database with 17 tables, each with as many as 43 fields.  The system allows researchers to record exact or approximate locations of the historical sites and plot them on OpenLayer GIS maps. I have incorporated a Timeline.js app to allow visitors to stroll through the gallery of historical figures, and I’m currently working to integrate D3 data visualizations to allow for customized data analysis. We are also working to integrate more than 2,000 bibliographic records from the ISIS Bibliography to create a virtual library on the history of chemistry.  Using all of these innovations, or perhaps in spite of them, the database has been set up:

  1. To enable historians of chemistry to store and share information in a standardized, but not overly restrictive, format.
  1. To support comparative studies.
  1. To provide users with tools to analyze both their own data and all the rest of the information in the database.
  1. To provide a resource for historians of chemistry working on other periods, historians of other sciences and historians more generally.
  1. To provide a publicly accessible resource for anyone interested in the history of chemistry.
  1. To be able to generate interactive maps, both historical and current, on which the development of chemistry can be charted.

John Perkins and I designed the schema of the database so that it is not specific to our current project nor to the period 1760-1840, and so that it could be readily adapted for use by other historians of chemistry (and alchemy) and historians of other sciences.  If you were to dump out the 1000+ records that we have input into the system, you could convert the project into a Sites of Archeology database and record the digs of the 19th and 20th century.  You could just as easily record the observatories, telescopes, and astronomers of the 16th and 17th centuries or plot the biological specimens gathered by Linnaeus’s correspondents.

While we certainly hope that our database will be used by and be useful to historians of chemistry, the real point of the project is to enable collaboration by historians around the world.  In a field dominated by the single-author article and monograph, pooling research notes may seem counterintuitive. However, we need to remember that the point of these publications is to share our knowledge. If we all share our coffee stained notebooks, idiosyncratic excel files, and shoeboxes full of notecards, we can engage in meaningful conversation about the topics that we love. Without sacrificing traditional academic products, we can collectively populate searchable, interlinked reference guides that will accelerate research. Please visit our site to learn more about the project and reach out to us if you would like a copy of the code.