Images of Modernity

10th- or 11th-century Greek alchemical illustrations. Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris, 1888). Othmer Library, CHF.

From ancient glassmakers, pigment grinders, and brewers to 21st-century pharmaceutical chemists, chemical engineers, and nanotechnologists, those who have acquired an intimate familiarity with matter and how to manipulate it have helped provide much of the material stuff of civilizations past and present. Often for the sheer joy of knowing, alchemists, chemists, and today’s molecular scientists have sought to expand humankind’s understanding of matter from the atomic to the galactic.

 

 

Intel C4004 chip on 4004 CPU board, 1971. Intel Corporation. CHF Collections.

As engineers made increasingly complex circuits using individual transistors, they began to struggle with squeezing all the components into smaller and smaller spaces. The technological breakthrough of the integrated circuit, or chip, helped solve this problem: the chip’s components are etched right onto a single piece of semiconducting material. The circuits imprinted on chips are too tiny to be drawn by human hands. Instead, chemical processes using tiny beams of light and light-sensitive chemicals coax the desired electrical behavior out of the piece of silicon. In 1971 the Intel Corporation unveiled what was thought to be an impossible achievement: a single chip with the power of a computer.