Rob Lukens tells us about the instruments that changed the chemical world and the quest to find them

In chemistry, like in the rest of life, there is an awkward point at which things stop being part of the present and start becoming part of history. Toys morph from playthings to collectibles. Furniture ceases to be used and becomes ’vintage’. A person’s diary sits in an attic for decades and later becomes a researcher’s treasure trove of historical information.   

This transition may seem trivial or arbitrary but it is crucial to saving the world’s heritage. In the US in 1897, for instance, Pennsylvania native and archaeologist Henry Chapman Mercer recognised that in the face of industrialisation, the everyday tools of farmers and craftsmen, from ploughs and chisels to axes and sickles, were disappearing at an alarming rate.   

He built a museum of everyday tools and equipment, which people thought was quite odd at the time. Now, that museum houses a pre-eminent collection of artefacts associated with early American life and work, that would not exist without Mercer’s foresight. 

History’s home 

This type of story has been repeated over and over - the story of history being ’made’. A similar transition is taking place at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), in Philadelphia, US. CHF is home to much of the history of chemistry and it is building a vast collection of materials related to the history of chemistry for preservation, research, and exhibition purposes.   

CHF has quickly amassed the US’s, if not the world’s, most comprehensive collection of mid-20th century analytical instruments and supporting archives, manuals, photographs, and oral histories.   

From the first pH meters to miniature Raman spectrometers, CHF’s goal is to become the place to go for all things related to the history of instrumentation.   

Quite often, collecting the history of chemistry proves to be a fairly straightforward task. For example, old photographs of famous chemists, the archives of Nobel laureates and early paintings depicting alchemy clearly belong at CHF. But in other areas, choosing what to collect as representative of the definitive history of chemistry and what to leave out can be a difficult and daunting decision. 

Historical quandary 

The history of chemical instrumentation is the perfect example of this quandary. There is no doubt these instruments have profoundly shaped not only the chemical sciences and industries, but also everyday life around the world.   

And ideally, every instrument in existence could be saved from the rubbish bin. But like all collecting institutions, the realities of space, money and time require CHF to pick and choose which instruments to accept into its collection.   

CHF’s heritage council instrumentation and artefacts committee, consisting of experts from the chemical instrumentation field, has found the solution to this dilemma through the ’50 chemical laboratory instruments that changed the world’ initiative.   

For a number of years, with help from specialists and pioneers in a variety of fields, the committee has been building a list of 50 instruments that have changed the course of history. To make it onto the list, the instrument has to meet a number of criteria:   

  • It was historically significant - for example, it was the first of its kind or it marked a great scientific discovery   
  • It was commercially or socially significant   
  • It dramatically changed chemical laboratory practice 
  • It was innovative or disruptive, requiring scientists to rethink or learn new or expanded principles of analysis 
  • It is representative of a class or was the first of a class 
  • Its design was based on a significant component, such as DNA on a microchip. 

The ’50 instruments’ list is a work in progress and CHF is still looking for input to help refine it. Today, the list stands at over 60 instruments and is still changing.   

The aim is to get comments from experts outside CHF to help pare the list down to 50. Ultimately, it will serve as a guide to ensure that CHF’s collections include all of the major innovations in analytical instrumentation.   

To accelerate the collection process, the ’10 most wanted’ instruments have been identified from the list of 50 that CHF is actively pursuing. These instruments are particularly rare 
or important and are top priorities 
to track down and add to the collection.   

Additionally, CHF is specifically seeking instruments that are a manageable size and will help to bring contemporary appeal to the story of the chemical sciences.   

To date, CHF’s focus has mostly been on the US industries. It hopes to draw international attention to this initiative and gain a broader perspective on the history of analytical instrumentation.   

Rob Lukens, is head of collections at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, US

The CHF’s 10 ’most wanted’ analytical instruments 

Model 5MX FTIR spectrophotometer 
Nicolet, 1982

A high-performance instrument that was also affordable, the 5MX made it possible for FTIR to be used by a wider community of researchers. 

MS-9 mass spectrometer 
Associated Electrical Industries, 1963

Based on a Nier-Johnson design, the MS-9 employed superior technology for its day; some MS-9s are still in use. 

Mettler B5 analytical balance 
Mettler Instruments AG (now Mettler-Toledo), 1947

The first single-pan precision analytical balance.  

Waters Corporation, 1967

The ALC 100 HPLC made liquid chromatography a valuable, widely used tool for organic chemists. 

Model A Coulter counter 
Coulter Electronics, 1956

The first automated cell counter, this instrument changed medicine, increasing the speed and accuracy with which blood counts were made. 

Model 1015 GC-MS-DS 
Finnigan Corporation, 1967

The first computerised GC-MS system, this instrument established GC-MS as a primary technique of organic analysis. 

Cary model 81 Raman spectrometer 
Applied Physics Corporation, 1957

The first commercial Raman instrument, it was later augmented with a laser source and helped establish Raman as an essential research technique. 

Model FTS-14 FTIR spectrophotometer 
Digilab, 1969 

The first commercial FTIR, totally computer automated in operation, the FTS-14 was the first instrument to make ultra-microsampling a matter of routine. 

AA 1 autoanalyser 
Technicon, 1957

The Technicon AA 1 autoanalyser was the first instrument to automate the analysis of blood serum for medical diagnosis. Shown here is just one of the modules that made up the AA 1. 

General Electric recording spectrophotometer 
General Electric Company, 1938

Known as the ’GE-Hardy’ spectrophotometer, this is the first double-beam recording spectrophotometer. In the 1940s this instrument inspired many new spectrophotometer designs.