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Romantic chemistry

Posted 13/12/2012 by sevans

Think of the Romantic Period (1780-1825) and names like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth probably spring to mind. But this period of history wasn’t only notable for its poets and writers; it was also a time of great scientific exploration and discovery, particularly in the field of chemistry, according to a new exhibition at London’s Royal Society. The exhibition, Romantic Chemistry, puts the spotlight on the discoveries of at least a dozen chemical elements that were isolated during this time – all the more remarkable given the fact that there was not yet a Periodic Table by which their existence might have been predicted. 

While elements such as gold and copper were already known since antiquity, the first element to be discovered ‘by chemical means’ was phosphorus. Although its isolation by the German alchemist Hennig Brand was anything but romantic, as he obtained it from human urine. Titanium was discovered by Cornish clergyman William Gregor, in samples of ‘magnetic sand’ from a local beach, narrowly beating German apothecary Martin Klaproth who found it shortly afterwards. Niobium was the discovery of Charles Hatchett FRS, who found it in a forgotten mineral sample sent to the RS in the 17th century by a US governor 100 years earlier.

Undoubtedly the most charismatic of the Romantic chemists, however, was Humphry Davy, seen captivating the ladies in the audience in a cartoon by Gillray of him lecturing at the Royal Institution. As well as inventing the famous miner’s lamp, Davy was responsible for the discoveries of both boron (1804) and magnesium (1808). A trainee of Thomas Beddoes Pneumatic Institute in Bristol, Davy also moved in the circles of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Robert Southey. 

As Coleridge himself wrote, in his Essays on the principle of method, in 1818: ‘If in Shakespeare we find Nature idealised into poetry, through a profound yet observant meditation, so through the meditative observations of a Davy, a [William Hyde] Wollaston or a Hatchett we find poetry, as it were, substantiated and rediscovered in Nature.’ 

The Royal Society exhibition evokes some of that early romance of chemistry by showcasing some of the early letters, samples and portraits associated with the discoveries of the elements from this period. One wonders whether a little bit more of the romance of chemistry might be helpful today.

The exhibition, Romantic Chemistry, will be open to the public free of charge until 30 May 2013, at the Royal Society, London. For more information click here.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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