A Scientific Fairy Tale

Fairy Picture of Water

Fairy oxygen and hydrogen atoms forming a water molecule in Lucy Rider Meyer's Real Fairy Folks or Fairy Land of Chemistry. Image courtesy of CHF's Othmer Library of Chemical History.

Fairy tales have no place in science. Unless, that is, you’re a 19th-century author searching for creative ways to explain the concepts of chemistry to children. But don't expect to find these fairies amongst the flowers—these are chemical fairies after all, who live in the heart of matter and in the lightning bolt.

Late 19th-century authors like Arabella Buckley and Lucy Rider Meyer wrote about science at a time when chemistry was taking on its modern form. Atoms had become common currency (though final proof of their existence had to await Einstein) and molecular bonding was understood to be the unseen glue holding atoms together. But how to help children see the unseeable? Enter the atomic fairy and the force fairy.

Meyer’s atomic fairies could have one arm or two, legs that allowed them to spin or dance (or sometimes collapse), wings, and even personal preferences as to dancing partners. In Real Fairy Folks or Fairy Land of Chemistry (1887) hydrogen had only one arm, and oxygen two. As a result, the promiscuous oxygen fairy would fly off with a hydrogen on each arm, and then the three would fold their wings and turn into water. Freeze the poor fairies and their legs would buckle, making immobile ice.

Arabella Buckley’s The Fairy Land of Science, on the other hand, envisioned her fairies as energy forces fueling such everyday activities as lighting coal fires. As she told it, the plants of ages past caught the sunbeam fairy and grew and died and turned into coal, imprisoning the sunbeam fairy deep under the earth until the coal was dug up. The fire fairy of heat then went to work on the coal in the hearth, releasing the energy of the long trapped sunbeam into flames.

Both authors used fairies to create a world in which science and imagination walked hand in hand. Typically for that time, both saw God at work in the world. Meyer's God is the “great Chemist” and for Buckley the forces of nature are the “voice of the Great Creator.”

Both books, along with other fairy tales, are part of CHF’s collections and can be found in the Othmer Library.

Posted In: History

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