The Matter Factory: A History of the Chemistry Laboratory, by Peter J. T. Morris

The workspaces of pioneering scientists are laid bare in an insightful text, finds Richard Joyner

July 23, 2015
Book review: The Matter Factory: A History of the Chemistry Laboratory, by Peter J. T. Morris

Some research scientists are interested in the history of their subject, but many are not. Most are of the opinion that knowing about the history will be of scant help in devising new experiments or theories. Peter Morris’ new book is unlikely to change minds, but I guarantee that it will fascinate and reward any experimental chemist who reads it. They will think about the laboratories where they work or have worked in a new light.

Few chemists will be familiar with the Piger Henricus, except perhaps as a Canadian brand of gin. Yet apparently this rather useful-looking furnace was a must-have laboratory fixture in the late 16th century, just as chemistry was emerging from alchemy. It is one of the fittings in the chemical house described in the second edition of Andreas Libavius’ 1597 work Alchemia, which, despite its name, sought to differentiate “chymistry” from its less respectable predecessor. It is with an account of the Piger Henricus that this thoughtful and profusely illustrated history of the chemistry laboratory begins.

Morris interprets the term laboratory to include whole buildings, the individual rooms that they contain and their permanent fittings. This broad definition well serves his guiding aim of exploring the relationship between the form of the lab and its fittings, and the functions that they are to perform. The Matter Factory carefully charts how the buildings and the rooms in which chemists spend so much of their lives have evolved.

He concentrates his attention largely on lab fittings rather than on the apparatuses they contain. Among the main features of this story are the decline in importance of the furnace, the emergence of the laboratory table and its replacement, in turn, by the bench, the introduction of utilities such as running water and mains gas, and the emergence of the bottle rack.

Chemicals can be both noxious and highly flammable, and chemical reactions can be explosive. An early attempt to keep both chemist and laboratory safe was the Stinkzimmer found in Robert Bunsen’s Heidelberg lab, which opened in 1855. Its successor was the fume cupboard, an enclosed but ventilated space for carrying out reactions that remains an essential feature of laboratories. Morris shows that although the fume cupboard has evolved in its details, its features have remained essentially the same for 150 years.

You would be forgiven for fearing that a long series of descriptions of laboratory fittings could make for dull reading. The author, however, has found an ingenious way to maintain readers’ interest by focusing on 12 laboratories and the famous chemists who worked in them, including Antoine Lavoisier in 18th-century Paris and Michael Faraday a century later in London. Morris also speaks to the importance of German chemistry in the 19th century in his discussions of Justus Liebig and his laboratory in Giessen, Bunsen’s in Heidelberg and Wilhelm Hofmann’s in Berlin – this last a facility so magnificent that it was described as a “chemical palace”.

Along the way, we learn a little about each of the individuals, the chemistry they did and the workspaces they inhabited. Bunsen did indeed invent the famous burner, but Liebig never used the condenser that bears his name. Hofmann was a citizen of the chemical world, travelling widely and working with students from many countries – and indeed, his lifestyle would be familiar to the star chemists of today. Morris’ final example is Oxford’s very impressive Chemistry Research Laboratory, which opened in 2004 and was masterminded by the molecular modeller and entrepreneur Graham Richards.

Chemical laboratories exist for purposes other than academic research; many serve the needs of government and business. Here, Morris chooses as his main exemplar the Elberfeld lab of the German company Bayer, masterminded by Carl Duisberg at the end of the 19th century. Such industrial labs are often multifaceted and can be used to carry out research, development, quality control, process troubleshooting and (for some pharmaceuticals) possibly even manufacture, and I would have liked to know more about how lab designers cope with and reconcile these competing demands.

One of The Matter Factory’s most fascinating chapters compares the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, whose 1900 building near the London Law Courts was dismissively described as resembling the chambers of a second-rate set of barristers, and the Laboratoire Municipal de Chimie in Paris, founded in 1878. The original function of the Paris lab was to identify wines that bistro owners had dyed or diluted with inferior wine. Its duties grew to include tests for water quality and the gas supply, safety in theatres and adulteration of milk. Founded in 1842, the LGC’s initial remit was to monitor tobacco adulteration, but it soon grew to include testing beer quality, including confirming that ginger beer contained less than 2 per cent alcohol.

Like Caesar’s Gaul, experimental chemistry is divided into three parts: physical, organic and inorganic. Much of Morris’ focus is on the synthetic organic chemistry research lab, where new chemicals are made. While this reflects his own background and interests, it is a reasonable choice, given the practical impact that organic chemists continue to make and because the form and fittings of the organic lab are more uniform than those required by the physical chemist. Inorganic and physical chemists may nonetheless feel a little short-changed. For example, it would have been good to have had something about Glenn Seaborg’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, which discovered and isolated nine new elements, starting in 1940 with plutonium.

Morris gives a good description of the impact that the revolution in analytical instrumentation in the second half of the 20th century has had on organic chemistry, not least by listing the impressive array of kit available in Oxford’s laboratory. Along the way, he gives useful brief accounts of the history and capability of many of the techniques that he mentions. Disappointingly, however, he ignores the parallel and possibly even bigger revolution in inorganic analysis. When he and I were at school, identifying which elements were present in a sample was a lengthy matter involving copious amounts of (very poisonous) hydrogen sulphide. Quantitative analysis, to determine exact proportions present, required a different set of experiments for almost every element. Today, accurate qualitative and quantitative analysis is provided for most elements in a solid sample at the touch of the button on the X-ray fluorescence machine.

At the end of the book Morris asks, “Why do laboratories change?” His answer, which will certainly engage sociologists of science, is competition. He cites competition between states, for example Saxony and Prussia or Germany and the UK. There is also competition between cities, between universities and between firms, and, of course, between individual chemists.

This is clearly a work that will be of value to science historians, not least for the 139 carefully chosen images that sweep across the scope of its subject matter and serve to bring the text wonderfully to life. But why should chemists read it? First, they will find it hugely enjoyable and insightful, and will discover in it many delights that will illuminate their own laboratory experiences. Second, they will frequently be surprised – who would have guessed that as late as 1974, some East German chemistry students were required to carry out experiments in the open air for reasons of safety? And finally, some readers will one day have the chance to design a chemistry laboratory. The Matter Factory will inspire those lucky few.

Richard Joyner is emeritus professor of chemistry, Nottingham Trent University.

The Matter Factory: A History of the Chemistry Laboratory
By Peter J.  T. Morris
Reaktion, 416pp, £30.00
ISBN 9781780234427
Published 22 June 2015

The author

Author Peter J. T. Morris
Chemist and curator Peter J. T. Morris here offers a first-person author profile.

“I was born in Oldchurch Hospital, Romford (like Tony Parsons), but brought up nearby in Upminster, the son of an accountant and a former civil servant. Although I still live in the same house I spent my childhood in, I don’t feel particularly local (apart from supporting West Ham), as my father was from Liverpool and my mother was from Edinburgh. My mother strongly believed that Scotland was a completely different country from England and I was bought up on a diet of the Sunday Post, Scotch broth and rainy holidays in Scotland. I also had a white West Highland terrier called Jock. When I was about six, my mother introduced me to Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk in Crawfords’ tearoom in Princes Street, Edinburgh, which I think left both me and Sir Iain rather bemused, but as a result of my upbringing I have a strong interest in Scottish history. 

“Upminster lies on the edge of the London conurbation and the countryside, and I spent much of my children wandering around the local woods without any parental supervision. Apart from meals I hardly saw my parents at all during the school holidays. As I was deaf from birth, I took to reading books avidly as soon as I could read. My mother was a firm believer in the value of education, although (or perhaps because) she had left school herself at the age of 14. She encouraged me to expand my mind however and whenever I could.

“From an early age I wanted to be an astronomer and wrote a history of astronomy for my school project when I was ten. Fortunately, because in the 1960s there was much less light pollution than we have today, was still possible to see the Milky Way from Upminster. Although they had no scientific background, my parents were happy to encourage my scientific interests and bought me a Japanese Prinz telescope for Christmas in 1968. I remember going out into our garden the following July to try and see the Apollo 11 lunar module through my small telescope. It was completely impossible, I might add. 

“I also started to read astronomy textbooks, and I recall reading one on radio astronomy, which was then a new technique, during the summer holidays in 1969. A great influence on me at this time was Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The key scene for me, and one that set the path for my future career – I am embarrassed to admit – was the meeting on the Moon to discuss the newly discovered monolith in which the various scientists were introduced as Dr Floyd and Dr Halvorsen. I thought at the time, right, that’s it – I want to be a doctor, too, but a science PhD, not a medical doctor. I should add that at that time, the use of the term “doctor” for a PhD holder was practically unknown outside academic circles in the UK, although, unbeknownst to me, common in the US.

“At my secondary school, I was fortunate to have several good teachers, especially John Scott, who gave me a passion for history and central European history in particular (he had previously taught Richard Evans), and Alan Dronsfield, who introduced me to the history of chemistry. 

“I started to do well at chemistry in school exams. I had not encountered chemistry much before then, and wondered how I could make a living as an astronomer, so with some reluctance I shifted the focus of my interests. In my father’s shed, I started to do experiments using chemicals obtained from our local Scottish pharmacist and I even manage to make the relatively exotic compound borazine. I decided to go to Oxford because I felt it was more romantic than Cambridge, and the entrance examination was easier as I could take two chemistry papers. 

“As John Scott had been at Christ Church as a chaplain after the war, I applied to the ‘House’. To my astonishment they not only accepted me but gave me an unconditional offer and a scholarship. This was amazing, when you consider that neither of my parents had been to university, let alone Oxbridge, and my mother had left school at 14.

“In the summer holidays I took a temporary job in the laboratories of the local pharmaceutical firm May & Baker (later Rhone Poulenc Rorer, and now closed down). This experience gave me an understanding of industrial laboratories, which was very valuable for the writing of The Matter Factory.

“As much as I was thrilled about being at Oxford, I soon decided that laboratory research and I did not really get on. I sometimes got chemical burns on my hands and some experiments went completely wrong. I recall one time when I managed to put at least half of a very expensive sample of platinum chloride down the sink by mistake! Fortunately I greatly enjoyed the history of science lectures given by Margaret Gowing, the newly appointed professor of the history of science, and I decided to take my fourth year thesis (Part II) on the history of chemistry.

“I was the first Part II student to be supervised by Allan Chapman who has gone on to mentor most of the Part II students in the history of chemistry. He was recently awarded the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. He had a very colourful turn of phrase – he once said that an essay I had produced for him was in Swahili written with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Admittedly, my handwriting was very bad!

“Still determined to be a doctor, I suggested to Margaret Gowing that I do a DPhil on IG Farben, the large German combine in the interwar period, as a result of reading Bill Reader’s history of ICI. She obtained a graduate student grant for me from the Social Science Research Council (as it then was). I was very fortunate that had my fees paid as an undergraduate, and then had a grant as a graduate student; it also helped that I moved to Nuffield College, where the students were heavily subsidised by the college.

“Following a suggestion of the economist-historian Lutz Haber (the son of the famous chemist Fritz Haber) that I should focus on the chemical research of IG Farben, this became a thesis on the development of synthetic rubber in Germany. I was lucky that Barry Supple then became my college tutor, and he helped me to pull my thesis into shape. Margaret Gowing then suggested I take an Open University research fellowship she had heard about; I would work on the archives of the chemical industry with Colin Russell. 

“My thesis came in handy when the newly founded Center for the History of Chemistry in Philadelphia asked me to write a history of the American synthetic rubber programme, and this study was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1989. I was wondering what to do next when my parents saw an advertisement for the newly created position of Royal Society and British Academy Research Fellow in the History of Science. I never for one moment thought I would get it, but to my amazement I did, and I worked at the Open University again for four years. 

“Curatorial positions at the Science Museum become available only very rarely and I was extremely fortunate that the position of senior curator of experimental chemistry was advertised in 1991. This job allowed me to engage once again with chemistry, rather than just the history of chemistry, and I enjoyed creating a new chemistry gallery called The Chemistry of Everyday Life in 1999. After a major reorganisation of the curatorial department in 2002, I became principal curator of science and manager of research and residencies. My key task was to obtain Independent Research Organisation status for the museum so we could obtain research funding directly from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. With the help of the museum’s fundraising department, this obtained in 2009.

“Initially my research at the museum had been on the German industrial chemist Walter Reppe and the American organic chemist Robert Burns Woodward (about whom I published a book with Ted Benfey in 2001). I then switched to the history of DDT and its chemical analysis after the curators working on our flagship, Making the Modern World, asked for proof of its significance when I suggested James Lovelock’s electron capture detector as a possible “icon” for the gallery. In the mid-2000s it was pointed out to me that the centenary of the founding of the Science Museum would occur in 2009 – or one of its centenaries, as it has several possible foundation dates – and I decided to organise a multi-author official history of the museum. As we were pushed for time to get it ready for the centenary year of 2009-10, we were fortunate to have two external scholars who were already researching different aspects of the museum’s history as co-authors. It was published in 2010 as Science for the Nation and as the hardback soon sold out, it was also produced as a paperback. 

“In the late 1990s, I published a chapter on chemical practice for a volume of the Enciclopedia Italiana on 19th-century chemistry with my late colleague Alec Campbell of Newcastle University. The published version was severely pruned, but I showed the full version to my very good friend Ernst Homburg of Maastricht University. To my surprise, he suggested that I convert the sections of the chapter on different chemical laboratories into a book, and he offered to lend me his large collection of pictures of laboratories. There matters rested for another decade, until the Science Museum gave me some research leave to write this proposed book. Ernst then kindly obtained a visiting research fellowship for me at his university. I was also greatly helped by another good friend, Bill Jensen of the University of Cincinnati.

“I was motivated during the writing of The Matter Factory by the conviction that the form of the chemistry laboratory was largely shaped by the desired functions of chemical teaching and research. Furthermore, its development was accelerated by the demands of leading chemists, especially chemistry professors, for better laboratories. At the same time, as leading chemists, they knew what needed to be done to create better laboratories. The role of the leading chemists in development of laboratories is linked to a theme found elsewhere in my writing, especially in The American Synthetic Rubber Research Program, that competition is the best way of promoting innovation. The improvement of laboratories was accelerated by competition between chemists, universities, towns and states, most notably between the different German states. A secondary factor was the desire to improve safety.

“At the same time, it is striking how laboratories of all kinds – whether in schools, universities, government or industry – were so similar between 1865 and the 1980s. The Matter Factory shows how the long-enduring furnace-centred laboratory and its successors changed into the ‘classical’ laboratory we can still recognise today. While my main focus was on the development of the laboratory, I took the opportunity to look at related but hitherto largely unexplored topics, such as the history of the laboratory coat, the fume cupboard and the long-forgotten chemical museum, which was an educational tool for the chemistry department, rather than a display for the general public.

“Now that I have retired from the Science Museum, I am planning to write a history of chemical feedbacks, showing how the chemical industry has taken cheap materials, even waste materials, and converted them into valuable products. In this volume, I am also interested in the shift in the 1950s and 1960s from coal as a major feedstock to methane and petroleum with the aim of engaging with Ray Stokes’ argument in Opting for Oil (1994) that this shift was not inevitable in West Germany. 

“I am also taking up the study of astrophysics, picking up where I left off in 1970 at the age of 14. And it would be good to get my thesis published after 30 years!”

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