Not Counting Chemistry: How We Misread the History of 20th-Century Science and Technology

Sealed glass tube containing sample of Haber's synthetic ammonia, 1909. Image courtesy of Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library.

Sealed glass tube containing sample of Haber's synthetic ammonia, 1909. Image courtesy of Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library.

Chemistry rarely figures in histories of 20th-century science and technology. Standard accounts manifest a remarkable consensus about what is important, one in which we all appear to know what the key sciences and technologies of the last century have been. Chemistry forms at best a very minor part in these standard stories. Instead histories of science center on particle physics, the atomic bomb, eugenics, molecular biology, and computing. Histories of technology deal mainly with automobiles, aviation, the bomb (again), space rockets, computers, and the Internet. This is something of an exaggeration, but not as much as one might think. Leaving the atomic bomb or the computer out of a course on 20th-century science raises eyebrows; ignoring chemistry barely elicits a response.

Putting chemistry back into those standard stories is not as simple as it sounds. First, it requires a new basis for the writing of histories of science and technology; second, it would force us to change many of the standard historical arguments that shape our account of an extraordinary century.

Fashion is part of the reason that chemistry is left out. Our historical picture is shaped by what was said to be important in the past as well as in the present. Today we want to know the prehistory of biotechnology; yesterday we wanted to know that of the atomic bomb. Chemistry has, by comparison, not been quite so significant in the public imagination this century.

Yet other factors are at play; histories of science often seek to find the origins of present science. The most recent chemistry that figures regularly in the courses and the textbooks of the historians is that of the late 19th century. Along with electricity, it was chemistry—specifically synthetic organic chemistry—that was central to the so-called second industrial revolution. The rise of research in the chemical industry—rather than the academy—is the center of attention for historians. And so it should be.

But the fact that this new wave of research is the last routine reference helps us understand that the standard histories of science and technology, whether old ones or the ones implicit in up-to-date courses, are not what they appear to be. They are studies of the early history of some subsequently significant sciences and technologies, of novelties when new. We are left with a problem, for we have neither a history of invention and innovation nor a history of sciences and technologies in use. A true history of invention would be a history primarily of failures, for most inventions, even patented ones, are not exploited. The technologies that are in use at any particular time will have had their origins in such a mixture of ages that one cannot sensibly distinguish old and new. The early-20th-century world, even in developed countries, used horses as well as motorcars, kerosene as well as electricity, wood as well as steel.

Putting chemistry on the agenda requires a proper history of invention and of technologies in use. On the invention side, chemistry has been an area of extraordinary productivity up to and throughout the 20th century. The relative lack of attention given to the history of industrial research means that the full scope of this inventive activity has not been fully recognized. Equally important is that we don’t have a fully rounded history of academic science, so the enormous weight of chemical research in the history of the university is not evident. To argue that the Manhattan Project inaugurated an era of “big science”—as many of those trained in the physics-oriented history of science of the recent past have done—is to ignore the huge, long-term R&D projects of the chemical industry that long predated it. Perhaps the best examples, and ones that will be revisited later in this article, are processes for hydrogenating various substances: for example, converting coal into gasoline. These projects took years of research on a very large scale, which continues to the present day.