Cain Conference Public Lecture: “Global Commodities as Connectivities—
Chemistry in Birmingham and Camphor Wars in Formosa, 1860s–1914”


Date: April 10, 2014
Time: 6:30 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: Registration Required

In the late 19th century Europe’s chemical industry spread globally, bringing new products and industries—from photography, artificial silk manufacture, and gunpowder, to art nouveau products, underground electric cables, celluloid, and plastic manufactures—to relatively isolated regions.

Ian Inkster will examine how this new chemistry upset the social and political balance in non-Western locations, such as Formosa (present-day Taiwan) and Japan. He will also argue that these global impacts could have been rendered either insignificant or positive by the very chemistry that created them.

  About the Event

This talk is a part of the 2014 Gordon Cain Conference, “Chemical Reactions: Chemistry and Global History. The conference, organized by Lissa Roberts (University of Twente), will also include a closed workshop that is intended to produce papers for an edited volume (view the full conference abstract here). 

For more information, please contact Rebecca Ortenberg, program assistant, at 215.873.8247, or

  Event Schedule

Thursday, April 10, 2014

6:30 p.m.

Ian Inkster: “Global Commodities as Connectivities: Chemistry in Birmingham and Camphor Wars in Formosa, 1860s–1914”

  About the Keynote

This talk will consider two main themes. How it was that an urban-based chemical program spread at a global level under the force of a conjuncture of specific sites of local knowledge, academic research, and intellectual property into the heart of a series of new industries associated with Europe in the later 19th century—from photography and artificial silk manufacture to gunpowder, craft, and art nouveau products (in this case chemistry replaced such expensive material as ivory or marble or mother-of-pearl), underground electric cables, and the even more important broad emergence of celluloid and plastic manufactures.

Secondly, it will analyse how this new chemistry directly impacted on the politicisation of frontier warfare in Formosa from the 1860s, escalating with the colonial invasion of Japan in the mid-1890s. This second task is designed to show how high-tech chemistry could, unbeknown to any of its agents in the ‘West,’ and at the behest of no one evil-doer, radically upset the frontiers and checks and balances of non-Western ethnicities in relatively isolated locations of the world. Colonialism was a matter of commerce and useful knowledge in alliance with a process of cultural ‘othering,’ which in the hands of Anglophone interests and Japanese colonial imperatives altered forever the entire history of a crucial part of maritime China at a time of its cultural degradation and commercial dismemberment.

Finally, it will be shown that such global connectivities or impacts might have been rendered either insignificant or turned to more positive account by the very chemistry that had created them in the first place. Chemical work from the first World War allowed the production of plastic material and product to be freed from its dependency upon several raw materials. If such work had come earlier, political disaster in Formosa might well have been avoided.

 Speaker Biographies

Ian Inkster

Ian Inkster

Ian Inkster is professorial research associate in the Taiwan Studies Centre of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and professor of global cultural history at the Wenzao University of Foreign Languages, Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Previously he was research professor of international history at Nottingham Trent University. His original training was in economics, and he spent many years teaching economic history in Australia, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. His research is based on global approaches to the history of science, technology, and industrialization, and in the United States his best-known books are The Japanese Industrial Economy: Late Development and Cultural Causation (Routledge, 2001); Japanese Industrialisation: Historical and Cultural Perspectives (Routledge, 2001); Technology and Industrialisation: Historical Case Studies and International Perspectives (Ashgate, 1998); and Science and Technology in History, An Approach to Industrialisation (Macmillan and Rutgers University Press, 1991). Inkster has been editor of the London-based journal History of Technology since 2000.

Lissa Roberts

Lissa Roberts

Lissa Roberts is a professor of long-term development of science and technology in the Department of Science, Technology, and Policy Studies, University of Twente, the Netherlands. She has an extensive research and publication background in the history of chemistry and has spent the last several years exploring the historically claimed relations and practical interactions between science and technology, material and knowledge production, and science and global history. This work has led to a number of publications, including The Mindful Hand: Inquiry and Invention from the Late Renaissance to Early Industrialisation (with Simon Schaffer and Peter Dear, University of Chicago Press, 2007); The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770−1820 (with Simon Schaffer, Kapil Raj, and James Delbourgo, Science History Publications, 2009); Situating Science in Global History: Local Exchanges and Networks of Circulation (special issue of Itinerario, 2009); and Centers and Cycles of Accumulation in and around the Netherlands (LIT Verlag, 2011).

  Event Sponsors

The Cain Conference is an annual conference intended to foster discussions about the intersections of scholarly historical knowledge and practical information, discussions that have a bearing on contemporary culture. It is supported by a generous gift from Gordon Cain and is hosted by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

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