By A. Gerontas
α. The long century from above, or “when everything is expanding”
The “wonderful” 19th century has been described as “the long”, since its march was initiated already by the last quarter of the 18th and was concluded –through numerous social and political ups and downs- buried under the rumble of the First World War and the October Revolution. For the contemporary historian of science this era has a significance second only to the one most commonly referred as “the scientific revolution”. Indeed, although such a name would constitute a literal misnaming leading to misunderstandings there are historians of science that refer to the 19th century as the “second scientific revolution”.
What was making this century so special that at its end the whole world would stand shocked as it was? Was there really anything that separated this specific era from the ones that came before it, or the ones that followed? Most of the scholars that stand for the “yes-answer”, will point out the ideological kindred of the Enlightenment, the counter-Enlightenment of the Romantic movement, the stark expressions of social and cultural demands and the subsequent revolutions (literally or metaphorically), the newly born sciences and the redefinition of the old and their institutions, the “free market” and the “proto-globalization” of the British Empire, and –therefore- the first active claims of the Western values on the “Ecumenic”. Simply, what these scholars would claim is that what the next era was to be, was for the most of it put in place during this period; therefore, it is to this period that the historians should turn for definitions of our own age.
There is a “no-answer” however. Though the scholars that pick it would hardly attempt to diminish the significance of the 19th century for the forms of the 20th, they would turn to deconstruct the “uniqueness” and the “globality” of this very significance, while demanding attention to political and moral issues. They point to the Hellenistic and early Roman eras for analogous explosions of human activity, they comment on the similarity of the activity and the lack of globality in the similar cases and –more disturbingly- ask the uncomfortable “resource-question”: Would the explosion of this era be possible without the obvious factor of the colonial structures? Indeed, some would proceed to start identifying similarities between our own period and the last decades of the “long century”, assuming for themselves the role of “prophets of evil”.
Although on its founding Ιστορίη was intended to be a tool mainly of prediction, the main duty of the historian is to record and as possible interpret the past. And, though the “no-answer” should be taken into consideration –with the reported analogies of the eras–, is should be noted that for the historian of science the “long century” has a definite meaning, that separates it from every other historical period. Actually, it is a matter of definition in the first place: if indeed “History of Science” as a term ever existed without this period, it would have a totally different meaning.
By the 1700s, while what we now identify as the Scientific Revolution had covered most of its given way, the word “science” was still equaling the term “natural philosophy” (a term that at its high-day was itself including “natural history”). By that time, the mechanist approach had mostly defeated both the Aristotelian metaphysics and the Paracelsian “Iatro-Chemistry”, rejected the occult qualities of Alchemy in general (although they were to survive deep in our era in other localities of thought), and adopted new standards in diverse areas –including evidence and experiment, instrumentation and interpretation of results. Meanwhile a process was already initiated of reevaluation of the relevance or not of older asked philosophical questions to the newly evolving branch. Most obvious would this become from the surviving texts of this era especially concerning optics, astronomy, mechanics, or geography.
Science however was less than halfway to what meaning we give to it today. The scientific institutions as we recognize them, the broader social recognition of scientific work, the explosion of established scientific knowledge, the generally “applied” science, the introduction of science to the economic functions, and the implications of all these to other social levels like politics, social stratification and mobility, or even the theological and moral debates were still well into the future. It was in the 19th century that disciplines like physics, chemistry, biology, geology, agronomy would assume a recognizable form, new terms would need to be created (biology or physics e.g.), other terms existing since antiquity would be redefined (mathematician or astronomer e.g.), and –by the 1870s only—one could finally speak for “science” and the “scientific community” in the modern sense. All the above transformations receive a meaning only if seen from the perspective of delimitation of science, both externally from the other modes of human learning, and internally into different and self-reinforcing regions of knowledge.
true that the word “Biology” was firstly used with its almost current meaning exactly on 1800-1802, and its recognizable “Truth” would have to wait the popularity of Darwin’s work decades later. However “Earth” and “Social” sciences did not even exist as main topics of philosophical discussion before the 1800. In the case of the Social Sciences, even the problematic of their definition starts being stirred only in the 1890s, not least because of the influence of biological Darwinism over the social scientists, and the syncretism between naturalistic and socioeconomic worldviews.
This continuous magnification would go hand by hand with the formation of scientific institutions, unions and journals that would play further the roles of columns, the nervous system, and the reinforces of the expanding scientific “organism”. Although a number of institutions, unions, “Academies”, are visible already in Italy of the 15th century and, more intense and specialized during the late Enlightenment, it is today generally agreed that only after 1830 the “scientific communities” become evidently different from the “philosophical societies” of the European past, take a shape, adopt “ideologies” and start functioning on a given Paradigm of a scientific discipline inside and outside their respective national borders. It should be noted that the word national becomes increasingly important for the evolution of science, at the end of the 18th century, to reach the point of being crucial during all the length of the 19th.
It has been generally assumed that there is a correlation between the rise of Enlightenment, Democratic ideologies, revolutionary nationalism and sentiment, and the booming of science, its popularization and the multiplication of scientific communities both in Europe and North America. And in these cases that “democratization” did not follow the Enlightenment –as in the case of the Reich or the Tsarist Russia—explosive nationalism did; and the scientific institutions would align themselves with the broader societal structures, on an antagonistic “national” basis. Picturing this alignment as a “natural process” would however be only partially true. Because the “long century” did not only bring changes to the “ideologies” and the number of the scientific institutions; it brought deep alteration of their social stand and scope, through their total and unquestioned incorporation into the respective state mechanisms. The French or the Prussian University of the 19th century has a responsibility towards its funder, organizer and patron; and all these roles are being played by one actor: the State.
And while it was so, by the 1870s an imaginary “European” scientific community of journals, continuous exchange of letters, prestigious universities and national academies emerges on both sides of the Atlantic; based still however in the above real institutional structures still mentally and actively nationalistic. That implies an unbroken dialectical relationship between the intellectual developments on one side, and the already set social and cultural Paradigms on the other; without however the first to overshadow the second in any case.
considered “science”-until at least a great number of experiments proved otherwise; they were not only instruments of progress, but they were also the basic informants about how this progress was expected to be viewed.
If Christian Platonism were to play a crucial role to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, it was to return—if it ever left—in the “long century” in an even more Christian version. Despite the distancing of the Enlightenment’s scholars and scientists from the Catholic, Protestant and (delayed) the Orthodox worldviews, the social environments and the state mechanisms around them remained largely Christian to their beliefs. Quite soon the view over scientific development became highly deterministic and considered as a one-possible-way towards the human perfection through knowledge. This one-way-evolution idea was reinforced by many factors; the conflict with the set societal values after the French Revolution was demanding an attractive and promising ideology, nationalism was seeking a purpose, the rising socialism a promise; Darwinism would seem to give such an ideological tool by the 1880s, and the pseudoscience of Social Darwinism would eventually reinforce the already wished opinion. Progress was emerging as Paradise.
The fact that still today there are historians of science that insist writing their narratives, organized around the central question of “identifying the prejudices that delayed the acceptance of novelties in science” shows to us this heritage of the 19th century, and informs us greatly about this century’s scientists. Indeed the belief of the scientific evolution happening on a straight and inevitable historical line was so strong that it was broadly radiating outside of the borders of the scientific communities as such, influencing in a religious-like manner opinions, ideologies and decisions in politics and economy. This belief is today still widely accepted both inside and outside the scientific community.
Although this religious-like belief in scientific progress had the obvious advantage of offering to the scientific community and its state-patron an ideological weapon, namely its undisputable determinism of cause-and-course, it had also drawbacks, albeit less apparent. Probably the one with the greater impact on scientific development as such was concerning the “irreversible” of the “advances”, not only in scientific theory and practices, but also on mentality and behavior. A chemist or a physicist of the 1870s would tend to see as set and “irreversible” not only the progress inside the respectable subject, but also the borderline separating the subjects and their “worldviews” from each other.
Under the triumphing logic of the 19th century science, if the “road of progress” has led to the delimitation of chemistry e.g. from its neighbors, to its further fragmentation to inorganic and organic and to the shaping of the given standards, methodologies and institutions, it was because that was indeed the road forward. Therefore, attempts towards new syntheses of subjects or more “holistic” approaches—especially on research—were to be viewed as movements backwards, sometimes even suspected as pseudoscientific; and research attempts on subjects that were placed on the overlapping margins of different scientific disciplines, were not usually received as chances of cooperation between scientists of the different disciplines, but rather as “border-fights” between them.
more visible in the case of chemistry; both internally and externally the differentiation battles fought were the more extended and the harder.
β. Chemistry of the 19th century or “a story about conversions”
Chemistry entered the 19th century as the first developed discipline breaking away from the previous century’s natural philosophy, and by the 1830s it was to take a paradigmatic position among the natural sciences, generally accepted as “The Science”. Indeed the discipline was more than qualified for such a distinction; appearing as a main inheritor of a long tradition, including one thousand years of Western Alchemy and the iatro-chemical thought, having been already reinforced from reformations and new institutions at the end of the 18th century, being in a process of systematization and development of a “scientific language”, while presenting a continuously accelerating broadening of knowledge which offered undisputable real solutions to problems, chemistry would become emblematic for coming “era of science” and for the idea of “modernity” yet to appear. Not only would this image exist among the academic casts, but it would soon extend to engulf the middle classes –the winners, and therefore the deep believers of the time–, making the chemical “craft” the first scientific element to enter the popular culture.
It has been noted that most of the cultural specimens of the 19th century referring to “science”, actually directly or not they refer to chemistry, while itself the term “scientist” in literature most often seems to imply a “chemist-alchemist” (usually… mad). This demonstrates the influence of “chemistry” onto the understanding of the social environment about science; what it is, what it does, and –eventually-what it is expected to be able to do in the future. However, the picture of the popular context of chemistry—indeed, why chemistry would become so important in a social context during the 19th century—should be seen much more widely both in causes and results. After all, while the undisputable maturity of chemistry, when compared to the other scientific disciplines of the 1800s can explain its influence to the academic circles, it can offer no plausible explanation for its so broad a popularization among the middle classes, its numbers of enthusiasts, and the great numbers of polemics against it.
chemistry as a discipline) that were to stretch deep inside the 20th century. And it would influence not only this science, but also its Historians, Philosophers, and didactics.
If for the whole History of the 19th century Sciences it is true that it tends to organize around the keystone question of “identifying obstacles that stood in the way of progress”, it is even truer for the History of Chemistry. If for physics “heroic” figures have been invented to replace the real persons of Galileo or Newton, two centuries after their time, in the case of chemistry the hero-building was to be almost co temporal, since the first and most active historians of this science were themselves the actors of its drama –chemists who were anxious to spread the image of their profession as they were seeing it. Indeed, from Thomson in the beginning of the 19th century to Willstätter and his autobiography in the 20th century, a great number of chemists acted as historians of their discipline. All of them were primarily active scientists, more than confident in the success of their ideologised science, protagonists directly or not in (what they saw as) key-point incidents, often involved in the politics of their respective countries, and not rarely inspired by the 19th century nationalism (or even more the quite naturally generated by the colonial structures European “superiority” of civilization).
Since all these chemists-historians were sharing more or less the same beliefs, concerning the “straight path to progress” –a path on which the driving force would indisputably be chemistry as the Paradigm, it is not surprising that even today the standard History of the 19th century chemistry seems to follow the order of subjects as they are being taught in any University: Inorganic-Organic-Physical chemistries. Following this standard view, it is accepted that chemistry with its modern form evolved “naturally” in three (and a half) periods. Starting at the end of the 18th century with Lavoisier’s “revolution”, reinforced by Dalton’s atomic hypothesis, an “Inorganic Chemistry period” rose. A second one –of the “Organic” sort- would be initiated around the mid-century with the standardization of the structural formations of the carbonic chains; and a third was soon to follow from the 1870s, by the emergence of physical chemistry and its ionic theories that would bridge the Inorganic and Organic realms (and not chemistry and physics as its name would lead us naturally to assume). This periodization quite logically is followed by a “half” period of industrial chemistry as a “natural” outcome of the advances of the academic research, which is itself separated into “natural” periods: heavy chemistry from the late 18th century, the finer industry of dyes and pharmaceuticals by 1850, and the period initiated by Fritz Haber’s invention of his process for the straight production of ammonia.
Because this type of story-telling demands a process of the “thesis-antithesis…-conversion to antithesis” model, instead of the normal dialectics, the story of the 19th century chemistry tends to be organized around important personalities and their advances, and the natural outcome of the “conversion” of their opponents. Therefore only the reasons of the “delays” (in other words, of the blindness of the defeated) remain to be researched.
Priestley, known for his contribution in many fields, take such a combative stance in favor of the phlogiston theory and against the “oxygen” one proposed by Lavoisier? Obstacles, prejudices and metaphysical ideas would be the ready answer. Indeed, why did the “oxygen theory” win over phlogiston? Because in the face of natural progress backwardness had to succumb. Or, later, how was it possible that chemists pronounced for their achievements, and having in their possession the active notions of atom, molecule, and element, would fail totally the effort of understanding and adopting the notion of chemical –atomic and molecular, bi-atomic etc. – structures? Was it a case of collective “Blindness”?
The reasons behind such resistances to new theories in chemistry through the length of the 19th century are quite diverse from a case to another and from a decade to the next. Despite these diversities however most of these cases of “blindness” become clearer when placed inside the context of the mentality of the chemical communities, especially in the period after the 1830s. As noted before, after the 1830s the chemists can be described as the most “professional” of the overall scientific community, with fixed standards of theory and practice, an understanding of the demarcation of their discipline from the other sciences, and with a developed ideology concerning what their science is, where does it aim at, and how important it can be for the general “road to progress”. Part of this ideology was also the belief that both the external and internal borders of chemistry came out of a natural evolutionary process towards this progress, and that every action that tended to reunify the separated subjects –or disciplines or to subject chemistry to purposes external to it, was an action aiming backwards, and could never understood as progressive.
It is quite interesting that most of the controversies and the polemics inside the chemical discipline of this era involve this type of issues of disciplinary identity and external or internal boundaries. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that the definition and the redefinition of the boundaries between chemistry and physics or biology contributed profoundly to the shaping of chemistry’s identity. For the atomic hypothesis of Dalton ( 1808 ) to be accepted for example, a controversial stage had to pass where the borders between the “physical” and “chemical” atoms “had to” be distinguished. Towards this target were moving the atomic works of many notable chemists; yes to “atomism”, albeit a “chemical” one (e.g. the attempt of Jean-Baptiste Dumas in the 1830s). Similarly at the 1870s the theories of the Ionists and the development and promotion of physical chemistry would delay, because for this advance a new equilibrium “had to” be reached; one that would not threaten the established institutions, chairs, mentalities of the already fixed world of Inorganic and Organic chemistries. The new sub-discipline had to invent its own language, complete with a perspective on molecules which would not bridge directly chemistry and physics, abandon any “holistic” view of the natural systems that moved towards cancelling the “mechanist” one, in order to be accepted finally as a common keystone of both Inorganic and Organic chemistries.
was to be quite useful a Paradigm for the quickly rising Life Sciences, and mostly physiology. That relation would eventually establish itself both ways: The observation of living systems and their natural systems of substances separation–the most obvious of them based on the differing physical properties of the substances involved- would tempt physiologists to construct analogous procedures for use in research.
The “border-conflict” between chemistry and physiology had an already rich background by the 1870s, deeply rooted in the older question of the existence or not of a Vis vitalis; the question, that is, whether there is a difference between living and not-living matter or not. The rapid rise and expansion of Organic chemistry by the mid-century had changed the arguments of both sides, but has not really changed the core subject of the discussion. Though the physiologists had to abandon views over “alive” matter, they were maintaining their thesis that life as a phenomenon was a result of systemic organization of chemical compounds, and that these compounds could not be researched and understood out and away of the system that they belong to and the functions that they serve. From their side chemists would extend the mechanist and de-structural positions. Any living being is just a complicated combustion engine which burns carbon and discards carbonic acid; therefore, it can be researched –as a machine- by isolating its components.
It is not surprising that the “hybrid” subject of physiological chemistry (biochemistry to be) began its developmental route in the period close following the setting of the theoretical basis of physical chemistry[. Physical chemical understanding of the analytical techniques and the invention of new ones offered extremely valuable tools towards the explanation and modeling of the reaction dynamics and the formable equilibria of the biological chemical compounds. Until the emergence of the new theoretical background, the key and only words of Analysis were “isolation” and “crystallization”; isolation of a single substance from an excess quantity of material, followed by purification of it through crystallization. After a big quantity of the substance wanted was so isolated, in a raw form, it was further purified by selective extraction and more crystallization; until it would be ready to be tested by carrying various reactions with the pure compound. This same procedure was applied to the whole spectrum of cases, including biochemical ones, under the obvious assumption that a biochemical process’s effect is essentially equal to the addition of the effects of the constituent chemical ones. After all, this assumption had worked miracles in tackling real life issues in virtually any field, all through the 19th century.
The drawbacks of this “classical” analytics would not of course be manifestly visible to its adherents. Especially the most fundamental disadvantage would be totally invisible since, by definition, it was exactly what was making this analytics “scientific”. Because “scientific” was to disassemble, there was no need to check and map interactions between compounds in natural solutions; furthermore, it did not matter that the chemical manipulations and derivative forming were more often than not altering the structure of the original natural substances –
even if that was preventing the researcher from making questions about their role in the complex system.
Though in the decades following 1880 the disadvantages of the traditional techniques when confronted with the analysis of biological compounds would become evident, the recognition of the existence of these disadvantages at the time would demand a shift of opinion among Organic chemists; namely they would have to allow for a “living matter” as a somehow special case of matter (quite obviously, a “mystical” view for a chemist of the day). Therefore, the systemic research of biological chemistry would de facto be left to the ones that were indeed carrying this belief, albeit not radically pronounced: physiologists of every sub-field. It would be under the instigation and the demands of their research that the most dominating analytical practices of the day would be altered or replaced altogether. The new approach would take into consideration those things that for classical analytics did not matter and its adherents would attempt to model their solutions analogically to the natural processes of separation of the living organisms.