revisiting high school chemistry class

My brain is tired, yo.

I just spent a chunk of time taking notes on a bunch of different early photographic techniques: daguerreotypes, calotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes, the wet-plate colliodion process, the dry-plate gelatin emulsion, albument prints, etc. My notes are a festival of chemical terms I haven’t used since high school: silver nitrate, potassium bromide, pyrogallic acid. And I’m not yet done; now that I have all this stuff noted down, I need to figure out just how I’m going to use it in the context of the story.

What I wonder — and what my sources don’t tell me — is the extent to which the proliferation of substances and techniques was guided by an understanding of the chemistry behind them, and to what extent it was simple trial and error. I wonder what happens if I add honey into the collodion to slow its drying? What if I add beer instead? The book I’m reading points out that these things are hygroscopic, but it doesn’t say whether that was a known characteristic at the time. I think it must have been, but maybe not; guncotton (a key element of collodion) was invented when a guy used his apron to mop up nitric acid, and then his apron exploded. (Not while he was wearing it, fortunately.) Knowledge of chemistry advanced remarkably between A Star Shall Fall and this book, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t still discovering things through sheer dumb chance.

(Skills I have acquired in the writing of this series: it occurred to me I could look up “hygroscopic” in the OED to get a sense of the term’s development. It doesn’t seem to have been used in quite that manner until 1875, a good decade after the experimentation with honey et. So while the quality itself may have been recognized, it wasn’t something they were talking about in those terms — not yet.)

It’s phenomenal, though, watching the speed with which technology developed. Not quite as fast as (say) digital photography has developed today, but still pretty amazing, given the tools they had to work with. And the results are amazing, too; there aren’t a lot of photographs I can use in researching the book — what I really want are London street scenes, and those are vastly outnumbered by a) portraits and b) cartes-de-visite of random foreign landmarks — but dude. There are photographs of my period. It’s the clearest sign I have of how this book stands on the threshold of the modern age.

0 Responses to “revisiting high school chemistry class”

  1. srallen

    I’ve only had a chance to look at it briefly, but try to find a copy of Bystander: A History of Street Photography. I think it may have what you’re after.

    Fair warning, it’s a hefty tome of an art book (which is why I’ve not had time to do much reading from it) but it’s a fairly expansive overview of the art of candid photography. Some of the images from that chunk of time are very impressive given the limitations of the technology at the time. By the same token, I can’t help but wonder if it didn’t hurt that there weren’t many people who were aware of what exactly that man with the weird contraption over there was doing exactly.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m not so much after it as vaguely amazed by it — but I’ll still probably take a look the next time I’m at Stanford to see if their library has it.

  2. Anonymous

    One of the reasons that the OED won’t have that is that the primary language of chemistry — and organic chemistry in particular — is German, and had been since the mid-1820s when Unverdorben and Runge independently synthesized aniline from coal tar… leading to cheap, effective dyes, the explosion in synthetic organic chemistry, the development of Beilstein (the hundreds-of-volumes descriptive atlas of organic compounds; if an organic compound has been isolated — whether in nature or by synthesis — there’s an extensive entry in Beilstein), and the requirement that all chemistry majors have at least a passable reading knowledge of German.

    If I recall correctly, the first English-language journal devoted to chemistry as a science, and not as an adjunct to a work on alchemy, wasn’t founded until about 1858. There were scattered proceedings at the Royal Society devoted to chemistry subjects from the early 1830s on, but most of the presentations were half physics/half chemistry (e.g., the initial attempts to quantify the Second Law of Thermodynamics). And, unfortunately, the OED is not very good about treating purely scientific sources that did not later sprinkle their way into common speech (e.g., Darwin) as primary sources for usage of words in English.

  3. dsgood

    John W. Campbell once speculated that nitroglycerin had been invented before gunpowder — several times.

    Campbell took for granted that gunpowder was a European invention; but he might have been correct about this.

    • Marie Brennan

      . . . was it really not known where gunpowder came from, back then? Or was he just remarkably ignorant on that point?

      • dsgood

        Campbell was born in 1910. I believe the history he learned in school would have attributed gunpowder and various other innovations to Europeans.

  4. diatryma

    I can’t get past the phrase, “…and then his apron exploded.” I’m just going to hold that in my head a while because it is so lovely.

  5. pentane

    What I wonder — and what my sources don’t tell me — is the extent to which the proliferation of substances and techniques was guided by an understanding of the chemistry behind them, and to what extent it was simple trial and error.

    Given that Rutherford didn’t publish his work until 1911, it’s unlikely from my view of chemistry* that the work was done with an understanding of the chemistry behind the reactions.

    Of course, they’d been doing organic chemistry (as referenced above) for over a hundred years, which begs the whole question of where the chemistry behind stuff starts and where trial and error ends.

    * – my degree was in the computational modelling of the reaction dynamics of ring systems, which should make my bias as to what’s chemistry obvious.

    • diatryma

      From a friend of mine, : Science is about questions, and sometimes answers. “What happens if I pour this into that? And now that I know what happens, how do I get it to stop, and where is the emergency exit?” Or “…Did you make sure your monitor was plugged in?” Or “But how does gravity even work?” All dangerous questions.

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