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    Pierre-Joseph Redouté – Scientist of the Day

    Pierre-Joseph Redouté, a Belgian artist, died June 20, 1840, at the age of 80.  

    read more…

    Through the Lens: Interview with Andrea Tomlinson

    By Emilie Haertsch

    Andrea Tomlinson works as the technical services librarian at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. She has a long history with the organization and joined the staff in 1999.

    1. What has surprised you about working at CHF?

    The collection! People think books about chemistry and science are boring but they’re not. There’s great variety and fabulous subject topics in our collection. We showcase it on the Othmeralia blog, but there is almost too much to include.

    2. How has the organization changed since you first encountered it?

    I have worked at CHF for a long time, and when I first came here it was very small. The whole organization fit on one floor. We have had incredible growth in scope, collection, and staff. When I started in the library we had 3,000 books and now we have over 100,000 that cover a wide range of subjects: alchemy, dyes, plastics, paints, food science, brewing, soaps, textiles, astronomy, agriculture, explosives, fireworks, early computers, botany, and more! 

    3. What have you noticed about assumptions within the field of history of science?

    Working with the Fellows has made it clear to me that the relationship between science and people is more important than ever. For instance, people are more individually connected with technology today than ever before. They are also more aware of the effects of chemistry on the environment. In general I think the connection between the history of science field and the broader public is stronger than ever.

    Take a deep breath. The oxygen you just inhaled was once a weapon of mass destruction.

    Nearly 2.5 billion years ago cyanobacteria—more commonly known by the misnomer blue-green algae—evolved to use sunlight to cleave hydrogen from water molecules, storing the pilfered hydrogen as a chemical fuel while expelling the leftover oxygen in the air. After many millennia, cyanobacteria had choked Earth’s atmosphere with highly reactive oxygen, increasing its proportion from only 3% to more than 20%. Unable to adapt to the new atmospheric regime, many early life forms perished in what microbiologists Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan termed the “oxygen holocaust.” Other organisms, however, learned to harness this product of photosynthesis as a free and abundant energy source, which empowered the rise of more complex life like you and me.

    Today’s climate crisis—triggered by two centuries of burning and belching fossilized carbon into the air—has instigated a new atmospheric regime. Can harnessing the power of photosynthesis, what Italian chemist Giacomo Ciamician called the “guarded secrets of plants,” prevent a holocaust of human civilizations and enable the evolution of new forms of life?

    Over the past century several scientists—from Ciamician in 1912, to Richard Smalley in the late 1990s, to Harry Gray today—saw photosynthesis’s ability to harness power from sunlight and water as an engineering model to manufacture solar fuels.

    Based at the Beckman Institute at Caltech, Gray has used the socio-technical vision of affordable solar fuels to energize a new generation of techno-solution seekers into his Solar Army, which recruits high school and college students in the search for cheap catalysts. Meanwhile, colleague at Caltech, Nathan Lewis, pursues solar fuels through the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, an Energy Innovation Hub sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

    Will artificial photosynthesis, a new take on one of Earth’s oldest inventions, offer an escape from our own extinction and shine a path toward sustainable growth? Many people hope so.

    By Roger Eardley-Pryor

    Image: https://pixabay.com/en/leaf-plant-vegetation-sunlight-326358/

    Through the Lens: Interview with Ron Brashear

    By Emilie Haertsch

    Ronald Brashear is the Arnold Thackray Director of the Othmer Library. For over twenty years he has worked in the special collections libraries and history of science fields.

    1. What has surprised you about working at CHF?

    When I came here from the Smithsonian 10 years ago I was not prepared for how nimble and flexible CHF was as a young institution! We were still working on finding our niche. There is so much vibrancy and excitement in a young institution like this. It’s fun to be a part of it.

    2. How has the organization changed since you first encountered it?

    Tremendously. I’ve been here through three presidents, and there was no museum when I first got here. The museum has changed CHF in fundamental ways. It’s a much more public-facing institution now.

    3. What have you noticed about assumptions within the field of history of science?

    History of Science started as a distinct discipline in the 1920s. The field had its own methods that made it unique. Now it is more willing to think of itself as part of the history field. In the long run people in the field may consider themselves historians, not just historians of science. That is a big change.

    Another shift is that the upcoming generation of historians is more interested in having a broader and more direct impact on society than in having a purely academic career. It’s not considered a failure if they don’t become professors. Many want to work in museums and research institutions. Many are taking a wider career path. It’s a good thing for the field. CHF demonstrates to historians of science alternate career options: curator of rare books, curator of digital collections, museum staff member, public history fellow, etc.

    4. What have you learned about science and society through your work here?

    Working here has reinforced the idea that the history of science is not just about studying the interesting work of a small group of notable scientists, but rather an integral part of society’s historical record. Amazing inventions were developed by humans who were part of the world. It may seem obvious to some, but it was not always viewed that way within the field. The impact of science, engineering, and technology on the world is now a big part of what we study. It also comes from the history of science being more a part of the history field now. It is embedded in our culture. It is also easier to teach and more highly valued by many.

    5. Tell me about an interesting work day you recently had.

    Acquisitions Night is always enjoyable. It is an opportunity to share the stuff we love the most from the library and museum with people who are interested. It demonstrates the depth and breadth of work we do at CHF. It is nice to show people how fascinating the objects in the collection are in their own right.  

    Guess who I found “hanging around” at the Beckman Institute in Illinois?

    Displayed proudly in the interdisciplinary research institute they founded, Arnold and Mabel Beckman’s portrait reminded me of a few of Dr. Beckman’s “Rules that Govern My Life,” including “always do your best” and “don’t take yourself too seriously.” I visited this Beckman Institute to conduct oral histories with, among others, Art Kramer, the outgoing director of the Beckman Institute at Illinois, and Klaus Schulten, a world-leading theoretical biophysicist working there.

    Roger Eardley-Pryor

    Secrets from the Archives


    I was recently asked to give a talk. “About what?” I asked. “Anything you like as long as there’s some connection to CHF,” was the answer.

    I’m the editor of Distillations magazine. People give me stories, not the other way around. So there I was, staring at a blank screen and swearing quietly to myself, when a brilliant idea hit me. I would use someone else’s story!

    I ran downstairs to see Andy Mangravite, an archivist at CHF and the man who’d written a short piece for the magazine on a chemist named Walter O. Snelling. You’ve probably never heard of the guy. I’ve asked chemists about him and they haven’t heard of him, either. Andy had written about Snelling’s work with explosives and how he had been the first man to make propane useful (in the process becoming known as the “father of propane”). Snelling’s archive came in at 55 linear feet of paper; that’s about the length of three Asian elephants. There had to be something interesting in there for me to find. So I asked Andy to find it for me.

    He came through with pages and pages on patents and advertising. While boring at first glance, on closer inspection it was a treasure trove of history about the issues and concerns of a chemist in the early and mid-20th century. I was immediately struck by Snelling’s compulsive collecting habits. Wading in, I was taken by his notes about a fire-extinguisher patent he took out in the 1910s. At the time, fire extinguishers typically were filled with carbon tetrachloride, a chemical not used much anymore because it is toxic. But there were other problems with carbon tetrachloride: the chlorine eventually liberated itself from the carbon tetrachloride and corroded the extinguisher, meaning the fire extinguishers would too often not work when they were needed most. Snelling’s nifty trick was to use another chemical to mop up the free chlorine. Snelling wasn’t much of a believer in modesty, as evident in his notes: “My patents were purchased at a time when the carbon tetrachloride fire extinguisher industry was in a very difficult position, and helped to save the industry from disaster and bankruptcy.”

    Alas, Andy couldn’t give me the most intriguing stuff that CHF inherited from Snelling’s family. Snelling had worked with the Atomic Energy Commission after World War II, and some of his papers from that time were stamped “Top Secret.” When the Snelling Collection arrived at CHF, Andy went through all three elephants worth of it and pulled out any top secret papers he came across and sent them to the National Archives and Records Administration. The collection also came with the “Top Secret” stamp used by Snelling. When he retired he kept the stamp, which I suspect would have been slightly illegal, or at least severely frowned upon.  

    Oh, there was also a photo of a soldier in the collection taken by Snelling during World War II. Boring stuff, except that Snelling had used TNT instead of silver salts to make the photographic paper light sensitive. Who knew TNT could be used in photography? The image didn’t come out well, so I doubt we’ll ever see explosive photography again.

    By Michal Meyer

    Image: One of chemist Walter Snelling’s many photographic experiments. (Papers of Walter O. Snelling, Othmer Library, CHF)

    Animating Science at Play

    Part 3

    Our small class of animation students divided up the big job of animating five shorts. The project didn’t always run smoothly, particularly when it came to the animation set in the 1950s. The 1950s passed from one student to another, until we had just one month left to finish the project. Then I took over the animation for that short.

    Luckily, everyone else was on schedule. Four weeks before the end of the semester Sam Oneto finished animating the 1970s. Three weeks later I finished with the 2000s. In the final week of the semester Haley Monsoon and Christina Palomino finished the 1900s and I finished the 1950s.

    We also had to juggle both our school’s schedule and CHF’s work schedule. Our group had almost everything finalized when CHF requested an important last minute revision for the 1970s scene one day before the school closed. I quickly emailed a possible solution, but unfortunately it was after work hours. Because the school and the equipment in it would be inaccessible until January 4, I quickly called up Sam, the 1970s animator, and told her about the revisions I suggested. We had to assume CHF would approve the changes because we didn’t have time to wait for a response.

    Once the work was completed and approved by CHF, I combined all the short films together with the title cards, the photographs of the actual chemistry sets, and the credits, and send it off to our musical composer, Ben Howell. After the music is edited in, we’ll finally be finished. Phew.

    Working on this project has been a wonderful experience and the people at the CHF were great to work with. I am grateful for and proud of everyone on my team. We did run into a few bumps in the creative process, but nothing we couldn’t handle with a little ingenuity. I look forward to everyone seeing our finished work in the Science at Play exhibit. 

    By Meghan Luna

    Watch the finished animations here.

    The Transnational Light Bulb

    A light bulb is a relatively simple piece of technology, made out of filament, thin glass, several electric wires, and a socket.

    Those components make the light bulb a surprisingly transnational object. Above is a Mazda Lamp, a trademark lamp manufactured by the American companies General Electric and Westinghouse between 1909 and 1945. This particular lamp from the 1930s consists of 30 different materials, including several different metals.

    These resources were extracted in different parts of the world. In the interwar era, manufacturing something as common as a light bulb depended on imports from the Americas, Africa, the Arctic, Australia, Europe and Asia.


    By Hanna Vikström

    Images: From the book A Century of Light by James A. Cox.

    Animating Science at Play

    Part 2

    It took about a month for our animation ideas to be approved by CHF. This was worrisome, because we only had three and a half months to finish before the end of the semester. To make the project more efficient, we split up the work so that each student only had to focus on one of the five time periods and animation styles.

    Mee Choe worked on the 1850s animation; Haley Monsoon and Christina Palomino were given the 1900s; Alyssa Currey animated the 1950s; Sam Oneto worked on the 1970s; and I was left with the 2000s. Because we were drawing chemistry sets throughout the last 150 years, we decided to draw the shorts in the style of each era. The 2000s looked modern, the 1970s was reminiscent of Scooby-Doo cartoons, the 1950s was drawn in the style of UPA (known for the Mr. Magoo character), and the 1900s used the rubber hose style, like Popeye. Since there were no animated films in the 1850s we decided to animate digital paper-puppets in the style of 1850s newspaper illustrations.

    Everyone was essentially their own director, working at their own pace. Some people found it easier to go right into the animation, and some worked better when they got all the backgrounds done first. Some of us excelled at hand-drawn animation and others preferred their pieces to be puppeted. Imagine making a paper doll, cutting off each joint, and re-attaching them with string so that you can make the doll move. We all kept to our own personalized production schedules, trusting each other to do their part.

    Join me next week to learn about some of the problems we ran into while trying to finish the animations as the end of the semester approached.

    By Meghan Luna

    Watch the finished animations.

    The Art of Metal Filaments

    I came to CHF to research whether metal scarcity affected the development of light bulbs. While visiting several local Philadelphia bars I stumbled on an unusual light bulb. It had an old-fashioned filament structure that wound in circles like thread on a loom. I had never seen these type of filaments outside of illustrations in books, but I found them at the White Dog Cafe, the Bar(n), and JJ Bootleggers. Where did they come from? To find the answer, I dove into my research.


    At the beginning of the 20th century several businesses experimented with different metals for light bulb filaments. A German company, Siemens and Halske, manufactured a tantalum lamp which entered the European market in 1905. Tantalum has a relatively low resistance and as a result the tantalum filament has to be long in order to be incandescent. To fit the long tantalum thread into a light bulb the German company came up with a structure called a “spider.” The lamp was not commercially successful, partly as a result of tantalum scarcity—the metal was mined in only a few places and was expensive.


    The “spider” design, however, was not abandoned. It was used for a tungsten filament light bulb manufactured from 1909 to 1945 by General Electric and Westinghouse under the trademark name Mazda. Most modern lightbulb filaments are invisible, hidden beneath frosted glass. The Mazda light bulb was designed to have visible filaments.

    The traditional light bulbs designs I had stumbled across in Philadelphia bars were based on the Mazda light bulb. I first noticed them in 2015, but today they are everywhere, including my home country of Sweden.

    By Hanna Vikström

    Images: From the book The Rare Earth Industry, by Sydney J. Johnstone and Alexander S. Russell.

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