Some problems relating to history of science and technology - Journal

Journal of Chemical Education · Advanced .... Some problems relating to history of science and technology. Gunther Bugge. J. Chem. Educ. , 1932, 9 (9)...
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A comprehensive examination of the progress, in the last decades, of the historical treatment of chemistry and the other exact sciences, including the history of technical science, doubtless reveals much that is encouraging. There have appeared, especially in England, the United States, and Germany, numerous excellent biographical studies which testify to a certain interest in the personalities of the great discoverers and inventors. Likewise, though more seldom, the history of various single materials or groups of materials has received thorough historical consideration. Finally, actual historical research has been forwarded by a series of valuable works, and, in particular, attempts are now being made to gain a critical insight into Greek, Arabic, and late Latin alchemy. Side by side with this movement, there seems to be a growing interest in the history of technology; a t least the increased output of publications dealing with this field seems so to indicate. However, any optimistic impression gained from a survey of the chemical historical literature should in no wise veil the fact that in reality the history of chemistry is now facing a crisis. A critical consideration of the present situation leads only to a pessimistic outlook, not merely when historical chemistry is considered as a special field, but still more when the question is raised whether this type of study exercises any influence whatever on the development of other sciences, on the advancement of pedagogical aims, on the shaping of cultural problems-disregarding for the present the natural inquiry as to whether the ~ t u of8 chemical ~ history has any practical value. More and more there is a question regarding the aims and purposes of this field of endeavor, what is to be its future, and what its contribution to the great general problem of intellectual advancement. In short, what can this science accomplish for mankind? I t is generally conceded that there is as yet no general agreement as to the ultimate aim and purpose of world history. Is it merely recreational reconstruction of the past, and is the interest in history based on the satisfactions and pleasurable sensations derived from the discovery of something that has happened, a thrill akin to that aroused by the disclosure of something hitherto unknown? Do the charm and effect of historical research and presentation lie in the realm of esthetics or ethics? Has the course of history been governed by general laws and would the study of history furnish anything of real value if it could provide knowledge of such laws? These are all moot questions, and yet world history is viewed as, and treated as, a science, not merely in scholarly works, but also in the minds of educated persons, in the curricula of schools, in the lecture halls and seminars of uni*Translated by Ralph E. Oesper, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio. 1567




versities. History is today, as it has always been, one of the important sources of inspiration for literature, journalism, the screen, politics, etc. As compared to this flourishing condition, it must be admitted in the first place that the study of the history of chemistry (likewise that of the history of the other branches of pure and applied science) leads a rather wretched existence. Public or private support is almost non-existent, seminars and professorships in the universities are seldom, if ever, concerned with its subject matter; a vanishingly small number of teachers actively pursue it, and still fewer students consider it worth while. Neither the masses nor the circles of the educated manifest interest, and its influence on the shaping of cultural problems is practically nil. To be sure, in all countries there are isolated enthusiasts or devotees of this branch of learning-professors of chemistry who find time from their regular duties for historical researches, or who have taken up this hobby in their old age; ieachers who appreciate the pedagogic value of such material; pharmacists who have always had a penchant for the past; industrial chemists who turn to the history of their science as a wholesome recreation from the fatiguing demands of their daily duties; and, finally, a very few unattached persons whose financial resources are such, that they, as private scholars, can devote themselves to the history of chemistry. This small company today bears the whole burden. Their unostentatious efforts, undertaken as a labor of love, are responsible for such advances as are achieved, and if, some day, these persons of peculiar taste should die out, or if, disgusted with the indifference accorded their endeavors, they should turn to m6re grateful fields of learning, then the study of the history of chemistry perfowe must gradually decay and become extinct. Perhaps this point of view may be too pessimistic; it certainly is not overdrawn for Germany. It may be that the situation is better in England and the United States (possibly even in Russia) where there may exist a more effective movement to popularize the historical aspects of science. The comparatively small value and importance currently attached to scientific history as contrasted with the higher place bestowed on general history appears all the more striking and perhaps illogical when it is remembered that the former discloses a constantly rising line of progress, whereas the historical presentation of the political, social, and cultural vicissitudes of mankind and of single nations, cannot, except in a very limited sense, show any such advancement. Even the beginner in chemistry today has at his disposal far more facts and associated ideas than had van Helmont, Glauber, Boyle, and other great minds of early chemistry. In contrast, the relations of nations with each other are governed still by the same basic principles that held sway among the ancients or during the Middle Ages. The governmental systems of the Greeks and Romans had features that might well be emulated today; the lot of the masses is funda-

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mentally the same as it was centuries ago, and the individual of the present has possibly not as much opportunity as formerly to mold his life so as to secure the greatest possible happiness and joy of living. Humanitarianism is not a recent invention, and when the pessimists are confronted with the advances of civilization, it must be remembered that these advances are solely those arising from the forward march of science and technology. The history of science reveals a reassuring record of constant progress, while history, in general, unfortunately shows the reverse. I t may be that the slight interest aroused by the history of chemistry (and of the other special fields embracing the history of science) is due to the fact that this field of study can only prove again that chemistry constantly progresses. The chemist in general does not reach this simple truth by means of historical studies; it is revealed to him at all times in his researches, which per se consist of an augmentation of the factual material already available and of a widened theoretical insight. On the other hand, and despite all efforts of the historians, world history remains full of nnsolved enigmas, and like a Runic record, it is still waiting to he deciphered. However, men are still hoping that history will sometime furnish the solution to such questions as to how they may improve their lot, how to prevent wars, how to govern a state wisely, how to bring about a Golden Age on this earth. Consequently, the study of general history exerts greater charm and allurement than does the pursuit of the history of a special science, and paradoxically so, for the former is faulty in method and its conclusions are unsatisfactory while the-latter is surer in method and more positive in its findings. E The question as to why the history of a science does not arouse the same degree of interest and is not promoted on the same scale as is general history, and the further question as to why the history of natural sciences in particular is so patently neglected as compared with the history of the mental disciplines (history of religion, philosophy, art, etc.) cannot, of course, be considered apart from the varying evaluation given the subject matter of these fields of learning. To be sure, the present is ostensibly more than any other period in the world's history, "the era of natural science and technology," and, in fact, the course of events has never before been so intensively influenced by them. However, the effect of this influence is in general quite overestimated. Admittedly the newspapers and magazines are filled with reports of scientific discoveries and technical advances, every minute of the day demonstrates the omnipotence of technology, and widely accepted philosophiesmaterialism, socialism, monism, etc., however they may prefer to be designatedare based, in the last analysis, on natural science. There are many indications, however, that mankind is still strongly hound to the "pre-scientific" past. In the present cultural crisis there rise ever louder and more insistent the voices of those who advo-




cate turning away from a purely intellectual view of the world and who see salvation only in a return to the metaphysical powers of the human soul; back to intuition, to faith, to revelation, to sentiment, to impulse; in short, hack to the irrational. In many circles, a t least in Germany and other European countries, it is now almost the "correct thing" to blame all the evils of the present day on science and technology, and to refer either with hauteur or sympathy to a presumptive "break-down of the natural sciences." This auti-scientific and anti-technological sentiment has not yet made itself quite so evident in America largely because, through a combination of circumstances, a synthesis, superficial though it may be, of the two antagonistic tendencies seems to be rather possible there. However, the European observer believes that the New World cannot permanently be spared this mental upheaval that Europe is now experiencing, and premonitory indications of this are easily discernible, for example, in the constantly increased output of purely literary writing. Under such significant circumstances i t is not at all strange that the history of chemistry does not hold high rank, even though the practice of chemistry is admittedly of great consequence. The recognition of this fact leads a t once to one of the most important, if not the most important, task of chemical history. Precisely because chemistry (and the same truth applies to the other natural sciences and technical branches) is always playing an increasingly important part in the relations of men to each other, and because its material and mental accomplishments are more and more influencing the destiny of mankind, precisply for this reason must the history of chemistry prove its right to existence by convincingly setting forth these relationships. Therefore it must become more conscious than hitherto of its cultural historical mission and seek to extend its efforts to something more than the collection and sifting of historical factual material. I t must demonstrate that the mental horizon of man is broadened by the advancement of chemical knowledge, that chemical discoveries exert a far-reaching influence on world history, that the material welfare of the human race is altered by the successes of the chemist, that sociological effects, both economic and political, are direct results of chemical causes. In short, the history of chemistry must proclaim the debt mankind owes to chemistry. If successful in this, history of chemistry will no longer be regarded as a supertluous hobby indulged in by a few eccentrics, or as the sterile timefiller of the last years of scientists whose professional capabilities have been exhausted, but will take rank as a highly productive, full-blown science, and, as such, he entitled to general recognition and support. If prosecuted along those lines, history of chemistry will become an important factor in the education of the people. It will not only aid in the dissemination of worth-while knowledge, but it will also contribute a power-

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ful antidote to the cultural crisis discussed above. Far from being taken as retrogressive propaganda seeking to push back human development a few thousand years, i t should be appreciated as an effort to demonstrate that there has been both material and spiritual advance, and as an attempt to bring into harmony the two world views, which at present seem to be irreconcilable. The elucidation of the historical part of chemistry and the depicting of the lives and labors of the great chemists may have the further good &ect of reawakening in many quarters a feeling of respect and awe, traits which in this generation of "nil admirari" have fallen into comparative desuetude. In this connection it is pertinent to recall that some time ago i t was proposed to create a museum of chemistry under international auspices. In an institution of this type i t would be possible to present visually not only a general view of the development of pure chemistry from the earliest times up to the present, but there could also be exhibits showing the growth of applied chemistry, especially technical chemistry, which would forcefully demonstrate the significance of this science as a factor in our present civilization. A museum of this type would also be the proper place for preserving all documents relating to the development of chemistry, such as pictures and drawings of chemical equipment and apparatus, reports and records of the progress of chemical industry, notebooks of inventors, etc. From the economic standpoint, it could render great service to the chemical industry by collecting statistical data, and, it would afford the chemical historian source material of great value. A central research institute of the history of chemistry would of necessity have t; be connected with the museum if the latter were to accomplish its full purpose. The crying need for a museum of this type is made especially evident by the fact that even now i t is most difficult to work up an entirely satisfactory historical treatment of certain rather recent periods of chemical industry. At present, little value is attached to the preservation of documentary source material in this field, and records indispensable to the historian are lost or destroyed. A museum organized along these lines need in no way compete with or disturb the activities of the Deutsches Museum in Munich or of the other large technical museums, since its purpose would be much more highly specialized, and the greater emphasis on historical research would clearly differentiate it from the existing museums. The place of history of chemistry in the chemical curricula of colleges and universities requires no discussion here since this topic has frequently been treated by more competent writers. The question a t issue deals not merely with the heuristic advantages of teaching from a more or less historical standpoint, but goes beyond this into the effectiveness of this mode of presentation in promoting a closer union between the students and the subject matter of their courses. Historical approach not only invigor-




ates instruction, but it also stimulates and encourages independent study, counteracts the deleterious effects of routine and specialization, and protects the chemist, even after he has matured in his profession, against the narrow-mindedness which later so often appears as a consequence of the almost inevitable specialization that is forced upon him nowadays. As a sequel to these remarks which may have impressed many readers as being chiefly of theoretical moment, there arises the practical problem as to what can be done to secure for the history of chemistry its rightful position in the curricula of the higher institutions of learning. Let us disregard for the moment the material difficulties, which (particularly in the present critical economic period) are such insuperable obstacles to the establishment of chairs of history of chemistry, seminars, and research institutes, and assume that the requisite funds could be secured from the state, technical assoaations, great industrial corporations, private donors, or from other sources of endowment. Let us assume, further, that every university or technical college possessed adequately paid professors whose lectures and research activities afforded the students opportunity to participate intensively in the study of the history of chemistry. Given such conditions, would the chemistry student whose time is now filled with lectures, and particularly with laboratory practices, take advantage of the opportunities for studying the history of chemistry? Would not the lectures of the chemical historian be delivered to sparsely settled benches? Would it not be folly to even start seminars in which the participation of the students is certain to be inadequate? Could a single student be found who would offer to become the collaborator of a ctemical historian in order to accomplish scientific work? As long as these questions are not cleared up, the whole problem of the advancement of the history of chemistry remains on a thoroughly unsound basis, even though, for idealistic reasons, such advancement is greatly to be desired. It is necessary to differentiate between two types of instruction: (1) a general introduction to the history of chemistry which could be presented in one or two lectures per week and (2) a detailed course, including special training in historical research. The general course should be required of all chemistry students, if feasible, and through its treatment of the borderline subjects it could be made attractive to others besides chemists. This addition to the chemical curriculum, now already overloaded, would be fully justified by the returns for the small expenditure of time entailed. On the other hand, the more intensive course which must be offered in order to secure future workers in methodical historical research requires an entirely different orientation. It will be necessary so to vitalize the professional study of chemical history that the students who devote themselves to this field can look forward to occupying positions other than the teaching of chemical history.

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This will then involve the bringing of chemical history into closer communion with the actual chemical problems of the day, both with regard to its content and its technic. The first requirement is a more intensive treatment of the history of applied chemistry, especially chemical industry, and also of the history of the biochemical, medical, engineering, and other applications of the science. The history of the chemical industry in particular requires a far more thorough treatment than it has hitherto received. I t is frequently quite sad to note how often, after a lapse of only ten years or less, through carelessness or indifference, source material is completely lost-records from whicli it might be ascertained who was the first to put a given chemical process into actual practice, what was the appearance of equipment in which the first commercial production was accomplished, what difficulties were encountered, and how ihey were surmounted. If any one attempts systematically to assemble the historical data of an industrial process, he inevitably finds himself in the field of economics, and must deal with the commercial development of a manufacturing process. He has to study the patent rights involved, take account of business conditions, competition, cartels, as well as other political-economic factors. The historical consideration of chemical industry therefore yields valuable insights into its development and the conditions that are conducive to its healthy maintenance, and such training is an excellent preparation for administrative positions in this industry. History of chemistry consequently not only connotes the elucidation pf the Jabir problem or the inquiry as to whether Basil Valentine really existed, hut extends also to the shedding of a bright light on the genesis and g-o&th of important branches of industry on whose prosperity the national welfare depends. Whoever devotes himself to this type of chemical history will not only derive interesting theoretical information, hut will receive a t the same time an eminently varied and fundamental training and a stock of basic knowledge which will fit him to fill an active and practical part in chemical industry. In the foregoing discussion of the technic of the chemical historian, special emphasis has been placed on the technical aids required in the collection, sifting, and evaluation of factual material. Such equipment includes, first of all, thorough knowledge and wide experience in the use of libraries, bibliographies, and archives; by which is meant not simply a general acquaintance with scientific books and periodicals, catalogs, reference works of various kinds, etc., but also of the routine involved in the tracing down of given data, a certain "flair" for the discovery of scientific, technical, and economic material, and the ability to assemble voluminous masses of isolated facts into accessible files and card indexes, where they can be kept ready for use. The importance of the purely technical aspects of an efficient working organization should not be underestimated. Nowadays i t is only possible to work rationally (i. e.. with maximum effectiveness) when



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full advantage is taken of the aid afforded by the equipment used in modern business offices. Practice in the use of these devices, combined with a thorough chemical training, is the best preparation for those who are fitting themselves for positions in the bibliographical and information departments, the libraries, the archives, and patent divisions of large industrial corporations. The importance of a smoothly running scientific, technical, and economic information service bureau is now so widely recognized that qualified persons, even during industrial depressions, have reasonable prospect of securing such employment. A good preliminary training based on chemical history may be of value in lines other than the industrial. First and foremost comes the everrecurring demand that public administrations should include more men who have an understanding and appreciation of the exact and technical sciences. The transfusion of such blood into governmental boards of all ranks is highly desirable. A chemist or engineer who feels only a strong urge to pursue the practice of his profession will seldom be prepared to exchange his laboratory or factory for the green table of a government office. Surely this is the proper place for scientists who have supplemented their technical education with historical courses-whose preparation is thus based on both exact and cultural sciences. The final proposal is closely allied to a very important problem relating to the weal and woe of the coming generation of scientists and engineers turned out by the universities. A study of recent surveys of professional statistics reveals an astounding number of surplus young scientists and technologists, for whom, apparently, th& will be no openings in the near future. Hundreds of thousands will have no chance whatsoever of finding in industry any opportunity of applying the knowledge the acquisition of which has cost them years of study and much money. Industry and business can no longer maintain the strenuous pace set by the advancement of science and technology. On the other hand, it would be foolish to demand that scientific and technical research be put into fetters; the human urge to investigate and to apply technically the facts that have been discovered, will, like a force of nature, continue to act, and the spirit of technical science, in spite of all repression, will go on, even though the economic reasons for its practical application are not immediately present in the same measure as was formerly the case. The surplus chemists and engineers who will not be fortunate enough to continue their activities in the direct service of industry will have to become auxiliary troops, whose duty it will he to bend every effort to bring the rational procedures of technical science, its logic, its objectivity, its ethical goalservice to mankind-into those provinces of public life which heretofore have been ruled by an entirely different spirit. No more appropriatemental accoutrement could be given to these auxiliaries than an intensive course in the history of natural science and technology.

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To sum up: history of chemistry, properly pursued, is not a scholarly hobby, an unproductive amusement, but it is a serious and useful science which not only brings forth new knowledge but also lends valuable pedagogic aid in popular education, and in the higher schools and universities. For these reasons, history of chemistry, which up to now owed all its progress to the enthusiasm of comparatively few scholars, deserves the most ardent support, both moral and financial, from public and private sources. Only through the creation of adequate teaching and research facilities at the universities (or corresponding independent research institutes) can the history of chemistry be effectively promoted, and those benefits be realized from it that its fostering promises. The notion that a methodical study of chemical history, based on prerequisite courses of chemistry, would be of no later professional value is not justified, since there are numerous possibilities of utilizing such training. Above all, a training in the history of chemistry would prove useful in bringing about the highly desirable result of making more scientists and technically trained men raise their voices in the discussion of political questions, in matters pertaining to municipal and state government, international relations, and other spheres of public life.