Images of Modernity

Detail, William Lewis’s laboratory in Kingston, London. Drawn by S. Wale, engraved by P. C. Canot. From Commercium Philosophico-Technicum; or, The Philosophical Commerce of Arts Designed as an Attempt to Improve Arts, Trades, and Manufactures, Volume I. William Lewis. London, 1765. The Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, Othmer Library, CHF. Photograph by Douglas A. Lockard.

In 1756 Scottish chemist Joseph Black introduced a novel method for studying ephemeral gases: by their weight. By using sensitive instruments to carefully weigh solid starting materials and products, Black could track the release of a gas from a heated solid and its subsequent precipitation back to that solid. Later, in the 19th century, new questions about the fundamental nature of matter were sparked by the findings that optical and electrical instruments afforded. These new tools allowed chemists to explore the molecular and electrical properties of matter, changing both theory and practice. These developments eventually led to the electronics revolution in chemical instrumentation: the Second Chemical Revolution.



Woven textile of Supplex Taslite nylon laminated to a bicomponent membrane of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), 2008. Courtesy of W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc.

Technological breakthroughs of the 1930s and 1940s, like the advent of nylon, pointed to the power of the laboratory in devising new, man-made materials that would transform daily life. As chemists’ control over synthetics has grown, scientists and manufacturers have been increasingly able to control these materials at fundamental levels. Chemists can now, for instance, “juggle the atoms” of the polymeric material known as Gore-Tex, allowing it to be precisely engineered for highly specific purposes, from breathable textiles to tiny patches that are implanted into the heart. The above cross-sectional image shows at a molecular level how Gore-Tex is constructed: nylon is laminated to a membrane of ePTFE. Modern chemical scientists have become the alchemists of molecules, transforming them in ways and for purposes that were not remotely possible even one generation ago.