Instrumental Heritage in Chemistry World

June 1, 2005 - Philadelphia, PA

By Rob Lukens

In chemistry, like in the rest of life, there is an awkward point at which things stop being part of the present and start becoming part of history. Toys morph from play things to collectibles. Furniture ceases to be used and becomes ‘vintage’. A person’s diary sits in an attic for decades and later becomes a researcher’s treasure trove of historical information.

This transition may seem trivial or arbitrary but it is crucial to saving the world’s heritage. In the US in 1897, for instance, Pennsylvania native and archaeologist Henry Chapman Mercer recognized that in the face of industrialisation, the everyday tools of farmers and crafts from ploughs and chisels to axes and sickles, were disappearing at an alarming rate.

He built a museum of everyday tools and equipment, which people thought was quite odd at the time. Now, that museum houses a preeminent collection of artifacts associated with early American life and work, that would not exist without Mercer’s foresight.

History’s home

This type of story has been repeated over and over—the story of history being ‘made.’ A similar transition is taking place at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), in Philadelphia, US. CHF is home to much of the history of chemistry and it is building a vast collection of materials related to the history of chemistry for preservation, research, and exhibition purposes.

CHF has quickly amassed the US’s, if not the world’s, most comprehensive collection of mid-20th century analytical instruments and supporting archives, manuals, photographs, and oral histories.

From the first pH meters to miniature Raman spectrometers, CHF’s goal is to become the place to go for all things related to the history of instrumentation.

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