In the Flame of a Proper Lamp: Glass and Glassblowing in Making Modern Chemistry

For April 4, 2018
Hi WN@TL Fans,

Try to imagine a chemistry lab without glassware. Picture a lab decked out only with  porcelain mortars, stone pestles, ceramic jars, copper tubing and stills, iron pots and ovens and cauldrons.

See if you can conjure a lab with no beakers, no Erlenmeyer flasks, no graduated cylinders, no volumetric flasks, no pipettes or burettes, no reflux tubes, no screw-top reagent bottles, no test tubes.  Like George Bailey without Zuzu’s petals, it’s not a wonderful life.

For us in Wisconsin, now imagine a dairy chemistry lab with no Babcock bottles.   Simple, elegant, long-necked, transparent, graduated, Babcock’s glass bottles are inert to hot concentrated sulfuric acid and keep their cool under high centrifugal force.  And since 1890 we can paraphrase:  This is vitre, and upon this glass we have built our culture.

Flasks, beakers, cylinders, bottles: these are but simple pieces of glassware.  Yet the advent of fire-blown glass created the tubes & coils & complex reaction vessels & jacketed condensers that could be linked together in sophisticated apparatus that played vital roles in speeding 19th Century chemistry.  It was a field that in 1800 had no clear idea of the atom or the mole or the molecule, but that by 1900 had at hand the means to detect and measure, to analyze and synthesize, to catalyze and purify at industrial scale, compounds such as TNT that we recognize today by name, by atomic composition, and by molecular structure.  Glass and hot gas made the exquisite apparatus that clearly made a difference.

This week (April 4) we get to welcome Catherine Jackson of the Department of History of Science and Tracy Drier of the Chemistry Glass Lab as they present, “In the Flame of a Proper Lamp: Glass and Glassblowing in Making Modern Chemistry.”

Here’s how they describe their talk:

Chemists today use complex instruments to reveal the molecular structure of the substances they study, but chemists have understood molecules in three dimensions since the late 19th century. As a historian of science, Dr. Catherine Jackson is interested in how chemists learned to connect the substances they work with in the laboratory to abstract ideas of formula and structure.

Historical sources place glass and glassblowing at the heart of this issue, and they show how collaborations between chemists and glassblowers made chemical glassware into a powerful technology for understanding and manipulating the natural world. Now Jackson and Tracy Drier are building a present-day collaboration that explores how past chemists created the three-dimensional molecular micro world.

About the Speakers

Dr. Catherine Jackson originally trained as a synthetic organic chemist and is completing a book on the origins of organic synthesis. She has published on Liebig, Hofmann, and the chemical laboratory; and she has coedited (with Hasok Chang) “An Element of Controversy: The Life of Chlorine in Science, Medicine, Technology and War” (British Society for the History of Science, 2007). Jackson teaches a range of undergraduate and graduate courses at UW­–Madison in the history of modern science, the history of the lab, and material culture as an approach to the history of science.

Tracy Drier began his career as a paper engineer, but glassblowing was always his first love. When he turned 30, he decided to make the switch and moved to south New Jersey to enroll in the nation’s only scientific glassblowing program at Salem Community College. The following year, he took a position with Aldrich Chemical Company in Milwaukee. In the fall of 2000, he moved to Madison to take on a new role as the master glassblower for the UW’s Department of Chemistry. In this position, he particularly enjoys working with end-users to design, build, and refine glassware to meet their research needs.


This week, a trifecta for you and your friends.

1.  On  April 4 Catherine Jackson and Tracy Drier light up Wednesday Nite @ the Lab.

2.  Thursday night April 5 is a special evening as the Biotechnology Center gratefully accepts the gift of the work entitled “Ubiquitous: Migration of Pathogens” donated by Pamela Caughey, artist, and by Byron Caughey, prion researcher.  Starting at 7:00 pm Byron will give a talk entitled “Corrupted Proteins as Pathogens: Prion Diseases and Prion-Like Features of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Related Diseases.”  At 7:30 Pamela will speak on the making & meanings of “Ubiquitous: Migration of Pathogens.”

At 8:00 pm I invite you to join me at the dedication and reception in the Atrium just outside the Auditorium.  I hope you can join all of us at the Biotech Center in celebrating the art, the research that in part inspired it, and the two people who have generously given the work to the University.

3.  Friday night April 6 is the opening evening of the 16th Annual UW Science Expeditions campus open house.  I am delighted to extend a special invitation to WN@TL participants to come at 7:00 pm to the Wisconsin Historical Society Auditorium on Library Mall for a expeditionary double-header.  At 7, maritime archeologist Tamara Thomsen leads off with a talk on the use of deep-sea robots to explore shipwrecks in Wisconsin’s Great Lakes.  At 7:45, arctic explorer Ross Edwards screens the short documentary “Windsled” and shares the saga of the traverse of the Greenland ice sheet on a swift-moving glacier schooner.

I’d be grateful if you’d share the the news about “Ubiquitous” and UW Science Expeditions with your family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.

Next week, Ken Bradbury updates us on the lifeblood of life in Wisconsin:  our groundwater.  It percolates down, it bubbles up, and it flows as it goes. But from the Central Sands to the karst aquifers of Kewaunee County to the urban water tables of Milwaukee, groundwater is a flashpoint in environmental policy in the Dairy State.

Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!

Thanks again,

Tom Zinnen
UW-Madison and UW-Extension