Distillations Blog

Welcome to the Distillations blog, your weekly source for stories at the intersection of science, culture, and history. For more great Distillations content, sign up for our magazine and subscribe to our podcast.


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    In his book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, Richard Holmes approaches the history of ballooning as a biographer would—focusing on the balloonists themselves. He uncovers stories of the personalities drawn to ballooning: the exhibitionists, the scientists and the escapists. He talks here about the array of human stories he’s uncovered in balloon history. Read more about ballooning in this Chemical Heritage Magazine article.


    Today’s story is from Ron LeClair! His childhood chemistry set adventures were pretty explosive. 3, 2, 1…

    “I used my younger brother’s chemistry set and set off a Bromo Seltzer rocket ship. I also converted some fireworks as rocket boosters and sent an outside clothesline metal hanger about 20 feet (ca. 1968). I still have my microscope from grade 7…”

    Did your chemistry set help you “lift off” to new heights? (Wow, punny!) Let us know! We’re always looking for stories of science at play…

    Whether you’ve rekindled your excitement with science toys at our newest exhibition or discovered new stories in Distillations magazine or visited the Othmer Library during our Open House this fall, you’ve found something at CHF that connects your curiosity with your passion for learning.

    With each leap forward our knowledgeable, curious, and enthusiastic supporters have been there, keeping us on our toes.

    On national #GivingTuesday, we’re looking for 20 first-time donors to help us catalyze the future and launch another year of new beginnings. Whether you give $25, $50, or more, we’re eager to welcome you into the CHF family as we look ahead to 2016. 

    Become part of something new this year: chemheritage.org/CatalyzeTheFuture


    Getting a new rare book delivered makes us feel like a kid on their birthday! Here’s a time-lapse of our Rare Book Curator, Jim Voelkel, opening our newest rare book acquisition. The book is Musaeum Calceolarianum Veronense, a catalog of the wealthy Veronese pharmacist Francesco Calzolari’s (1522-1609) museum for practical learning. See tomorrow’s post for more pictures.

    Scientific hoaxes have fooled people into believing in everything from water-powered cars to red mercury. This article in The New York Times Magazine deconstructs red mercury, a deadly compound for miniature nukes that doesn’t actually exist. We broke down another myth in our magazine a couple of years ago: was whale oil ever used in spacecraft and satellites?

    Mariel Carr - Trading Secrets in Medieval Venice

    Earlier this week, we posted the latest Distillations podcast about stealing industry secrets. In this audio excerpt Distillations interviewed Pamela Long about how intellectual property laws and customs go all the way back to 16th century Venice. Pamela is a historian of science and technology who focuses on medieval and early modern Europe.

    Listen to all Distillations podcasts on our website.

    By Mariel Carr



    “We’re Paving the Way, Bringing STEM to Girls at a Young Age”

    Tonight’s the night! Join us at 6:30pm for Not Just Fun and Games? STEM, Toys, and Gender. This special forum explores the gender gap in toys, STEM, and education. Listen to experts and share your own experiences with science play. Together, let’s brainstorm what the future might hold!

    All guests will have the chance to enjoy playful hands-on activities and a science-toy fair. (You may get a chance to play around with Roominate sets, one of our favorites, during your visit!) You’ll get to spend some time with Science at Play, our exciting exhibition focused on science kits and toys! This program is presented cooperatively with Temple University Libraries’ Beyond the Page public programming series.

    If you can’t make it, join us on twitter @ chemheritage to follow the conversation and share your thoughts.

    See you there!

    We’re live-tweeting this event using the hashtag #ScienceAtPlay. Follow along at home or in person!


    In honor of National Aviation History Month and #WTFWednesday, we give you this perplexing postcard entitled “mon aeroplane reve,” translation “my dream airplane.” To us, this plane looks like the stuff of nightmares, but to each his own, we suppose! 

    Image credit:  Image credit: From Album Gravures et Cartes-Postales: Vieux Paris Types Petites Métiers et Cris De La Rue (1908). Donald F. Othmer Papers, CHF Archives.

    A child of the Great Depression, Kathryn (Kitty) Hach-Darrow watched her family struggle to recover after they lost their car dealership. She knew that keeping things afloat meant getting creative. So she raised and sold a flock of turkeys to pay for her freshman year of college. And years later, when her husband, the chemist Clifford Hach, invented a new water-analysis system, she set out to create the market for it.

    By introducing chemistry to the field of water analysis, the Hach Chemical Company could guarantee safe, clean drinking water in town after town throughout the United States. But people had to know about the new technology first. 

    While also raising the couple’s three children, Hach-Darrow pioneered a direct-mail campaign that radically expanded the company; she even piloted her own plane to promote the analysis kits and distribute them to remote towns.

    Distillations Podcast: Stealing Industry Secrets

    Hackers. Spies. Secrets. This is the menacing language of industrial espionage. But how easy is it to plunder a company for its ideas? Not very, says our guest, Douglas O’Reagan, a historian of science and technology. Throughout history, O’Reagan argues, stealing trade secrets has proven more complicated than lifting a blueprint or section of computer code. What makes a company prosperous is usually much harder to grasp.

    But first we look at how one company is trying to pass on the skills and secrets responsible for its success. Reporter Susanne Gietl visits the small Bavarian town of Ingolstadt, headquarters of German automaker Audi. There she finds hundreds of Mexican workers learning skills, secrets, and the “German way” to build cars so they can bring that knowledge back to Mexico.

    Join us for a trip to the murky world of technology transfer.

    By Mariel Carr

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