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234 × 156 × 39 mm
416 pages
139 illustrations
01 Mar 2015

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

From white coats to Bunsen burners the laboratory is a controlled space of experimentation, research and invention. But how have the desired functions of the laboratory influenced the way that the laboratory was constructed, laid out, equipped and operated? And how have developments in chemical practice or theory changed the laboratory and the way it is used? The Matter Factory offers a novel approach to the history of chemistry, showing how the development of the laboratory also helped to shape modern scientific practice.

As consumers of leading-edge technology, chemists have driven innovation in laboratory design and the provision of utilities and equipment. For example, the introduction of coal gas into Robert Bunsen’s laboratory led to the eponymous burner, which in turn led to the development of atomic spectroscopy. Is the construction of new laboratories, and the provision of new utilities and equipment, an important element in the development of these novel areas of chemistry? This book tackles these questions by looking at a series of shifts in laboratory design, from eighteenth- to nineteenth-century furnace-centred, classical and industrial research laboratories to the creation of the modern laboratory at the end of the twentieth.

Previous histories of chemistry laboratories have focused on the research carried out within them or the people who occupied them. This book examines the laboratory space itself and the way it is used, from the scientists who developed it to its architectural design, layout and the materials used in its construction. In addition to the development of well-known features, such as the fume cupboard and the bench, The Matter Factory explores the history of the chemical museum, which is now almost extinct. Fascinating and unique, this book will appeal to practising chemists, scientists and general readers alike.

Published in association with the Science Museum, London.

‘I guarantee that [The Matter Factory] 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 . . . thoughtful and profusely illustrated . . . 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? They will find it hugely enjoyable and insightful, and will discover in it many delights that will illuminate their own laboratory experiences.’ — Book of the Week, Times Higher Education

‘Arguing that changes in laboratory design were critical to enabling the progress of chemistry, Peter J. T. Morris explores the origins and evolution of the chemistry laboratory, from medieval alchemy dens through todays state-of-the-art facilities. Rich in detail and featuring an array of engravings, illustrations, and photographs, The Matter Factory is an unusual and engaging history.’ — Science

‘Chemistry was probably the first of the sciences to get a room of its own, and in The Matter Factory, Peter Morris offers the first book-length treatment of how this happened and what has changed in labs over the years . . . The Matter Factory is the story of the years (and centuries) when chemistry was finding out what it could do. It covers a lot of ground, and brings together many old drawings, plans and photographs that are otherwise scattered through a bewildering literature trail. It should remain the definitive history of the chemistry lab for many years.’ — Nature

‘Surprisingly, there has been no comprehensive history of the chemistry laboratory, an omission put right in The Matter Factory by the distinguished historian, Peter Morris . . . The Matter Factory succeeds in describing the evolution of the chemistry laboratory. It is highly readable and well-illustrated, including numerous references. As such, it should be widely read by all who have had the privilege of studying and working in a chemistry laboratory.’ — Chemistry World

The Matter Factory is not a history of chemistry, of which there are plenty, but rather a history of the chemistry laboratory, of which there is none . . . Having himself worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and subsequently become a historian of chemistry, Morris is well placed to fill this gap, basing his account on an extensive search for, and analysis of, published illustrations and photographs of laboratories. His book is therefore copiously illustrated with images of both chemistry laboratories in universities, industry, and government and portraits of the inorganic and organic chemists who worked in them . . . Morris has unearthed a rich array of laboratory images . . . The level of detail in the book is valuable’ — The Lancet

‘understanding historically what chemists actually do in their quotidian professional lives has been quite neglected and entirely missing has been a systematic study of the evolution of their workplace and of the equipment therein. This desideratum has now been brilliantly satisfied by the eminent chemical historian Peter J. T. Morris, in this engaging study of the chemical laboratory across more than four centuries . . . Always lively, well-informed, and beautifully organized, Morris leads his readers on a fascinating tour through material that can be found nowhere else. The book can be warmly recommended’ — Angewandte

‘By describing milestones in these material manifestations of the infrastructure of chemistry, Morris also sheds light on the institutional, economic, and cultural milieus in which chemistry was and is practiced.’ — Journal of Chemical Education

‘A fundamentally important contribution for the history and science communities, The Matter Factory will also appeal to general readers with its broad treatment of lab history, a too-long-neglected field.’ — Foundations of Chemistry Review

‘Peter Morris has written a fascinating and beautifully illustrated book that every chemist or science historian should read. Indeed, it should be a recommended text for those studying chemistry or the history of science . . . Visionary and compelling, this is an authoritative and fascinating book that I strongly encourage you to read.’ — David Parker, FRS

‘In recent years, much attention has been devoted to the protagonists of the history of chemistry, but the evolution of their workplace, the chemical laboratory, has remained until now almost completely unexplored territory. Peter Morris sets things right in this lively and well-documented history. The book is not only an intellectual but also a visual feast, packed as it is with an extraordinary number of striking illustrations many of them new even to the specialists eye.’ — Alan J. Rocke, Distinguished University Professor, Case Western Reserve University, and author of Image and Reality: Kekulé, Kopp, and the Scientific Imagination

‘This lavishly illustrated portrait of the chemists workplace provides a vividly-written account of the evolution of the contemporary electronic-based laboratory from the workshops of early-modern metallurgists, alchemists and pharmacists. Using key features such as furnaces, benches, cupboards, bottle racks and fume cupboards, as well as gas, electricity and water supplies, Morris shows how the changing character of chemical teaching and research influenced the building and fittings of laboratories in universities, industrial works and official government laboratories. Text and illustrations combine to make a fresh and exciting way of looking at the history of chemistry the science that makes our world.’ — W. H. Brock, University of Leicester

‘A revealing, illustrated tour of chemical laboratories, real ones, filled with real men and women, working especially in the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond to today. A fascinating history, as well as a highly enjoyable read.’ — Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of Prometheans in the Lab and The Theory That Would Not Die

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Peter J. T. Morris is Keeper of Research Projects at the Science Museum, London and an Honorary Research Associate of the Science and Technology Studies Department, UCL. He edited Science for the Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum (2010).


Birth of the Laboratory: Wolfgang von Hohenlohe and Weikersheim, 1590s

Form and Function: Antoine Lavoisier and Paris, 1780s

Laboratory versus Lecture Hall: Michael Faraday and London, 1820s

Training Chemists: Justus Liebig and Giessen, 1840s

Modern Conveniences: Robert Bunsen and Heidelberg, 1850s

The Chemical Palace: Wilhelm Hofmann and Berlin, 1860s

Laboratory Transfer: Henry Roscoe and Manchester, 1870s

Chemical Museums: Charles Chandler and New York, 1890s

Cradles of Innovation: Carl Duisberg and Elberfeld, 1890s

Neither Fish nor Fowl: Thomas Thorpe and London, 1890s

Chemistry in Silicon Valley: Bill Johnson and Stanford, 1960s

Innovation on the Isis: Graham Richards and Oxford, 2000s




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Photo Acknowledgements