Images of Modernity

The possibilities seemed endless. When Bakelite, the first wholly synthetic plastic, exploded onto the manufacturing scene a century ago, it seemed it could be made into anything. In toothbrushes, furniture, and medical devices, this new synthetic stuff of life quickly became the mark of modernity. Yet this novel invention did not emerge out of a vacuum. Natural plastics had been developed during the 19th century, and celluloid, a semisynthetic plastic made from treated cellulose, was introduced in 1869 and soon replaced natural substances as diverse as ivory and linen.

The history of the chemical and molecular sciences is rife with examples of revolutionary innovations that seem to have emerged from a scientific void. Such important developments and discoveries as atomic theory, the periodic table, oxygen, mauve, plutonium, the silicon chip, and penicillin seem to have had sudden, paradigm-shifting impacts on our world and our history. But progress toward these developments was often slow and steady. From ancient glassmakers to nanotechnologists, medieval mine masters to modern chemical engineers, early brewers to 21st-century pharmaceutical scientists, the chemical innovators who have revolutionized our society and daily lives have relied on the research and knowledge that preceded them.

Making Modernity, a major new exhibition celebrating the influence of science on the modern world, explores the long history of scientific progress in the workshop, laboratory, factory, classroom, and home. Drawn from CHF’s world-class collections, the exhibition ranges from cosmetics to computers and includes scientific instruments and apparatus, rare books, fine art, and the personal papers of prominent scientists. In this slideshow, iconic images from Making Modernity offer a small window onto the exhibit’s sweeping story of the world’s central science.


Mary Ellen Bowden is a consulting historian and Erin McLeary is curator of exhibits at CHF. Making Modernity is made possible by the generous support of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.