Collective Voice: The 13th Element

Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley with two students in his laboratory at Rice University.

No, it's not a chimney: Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley in his laboratory at Rice University. Richard E. Smalley Collection, CHF Collections.

In Collective Voice, a new monthly column on Periodic Tabloid, staff from CHF’s collections will highlight some of their favorite things. The first missive, coming as it does on a freaky Friday, seems an appropriate place for a story about luck. - Ed.

In the collection at CHF, quite a few of our machines have large pieces of aluminum foil attached to them – usually accompanied by a note stating “DO NOT REMOVE.” Some of our photographs show laboratory instruments wrapped in the stuff, and among our artifacts is even a roll of Fisher Scientific brand aluminum foil. Do chemists just love shiny things, or is there something else going on here?  

Aluminum foil, tin foil, Reynolds Wrap – whatever you prefer to call it, everyone has it in their homes, and if you’re like me, uses it at least once a day. These thin, lightweight metals did wonders for packaging and storage since their introduction in the late 19th century; they are malleable, heat retentive, and practically impermeable to both air and water. Aluminum became the food wrapping of choice in 1910 – though some old-timers still call it tin foil – and was first used in the United States in 1913 by candy and gum companies (Life Savers was an early pioneer). But none of this explains how it ended up on so many scientific instruments.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that most of these machines are extremely sensitive, especially to electromagnetic field interference. In a creative attempt to shield them from EMI – like a burrito from the rain – scientists turned to whatever was handy, cheap, and easy to manipulate. Because aluminum foil is so pliable, it can be wrapped around almost any component on any instrument.  It is also easily removable and can help to hold in insulation if needed. 

As I’ve discovered in my almost 8 years as CHF’s Special Collections Registrar and Assistant Curator, chemists rely just as much on ingenuity and luck as they do on formulas and theory. Sometimes all it takes is a trip to the kitchen, some quick thinking, and a roll of foil.

Of course, it is Friday the 13th, so I would be remiss if I did not also mention it’s for the same reason foil hats are thought to protect against mind-reading aliens. Although there is no proof that they work, sometimes it’s better to be safe that sorry.


Aluminum: Common Metal, Uncommon Past [Chemical Heritage]
Things We Wear [Distillations]

Teaser image courtesy flickr user Public Domain Photos.

Posted In: History

comments powered by Disqus

By posting your comment, you agree to abide by CHF’s Comment Policies.