Dylan Stiles gets nostalgic for old-time chemistry

Dylan Stiles gets nostalgic for old-time chemistry

I always get a kick from consulting old literature references to unearth some long-forgotten method. Even preparing a simple chemical like allyl alcohol was an impressive feat, back in the days when you couldn’t just order it from Aldrich. And how about an entire article devoted to manually solving the X-ray structure of alanine - something that would now be completely routine once took an entire PhD’s-worth of effort. 

This all gives me a deep respect for our chemical forefathers. Without the benefit of things like column chromatography they had to resort to purely mechanical methods to purify their chemicals. Ingenious contraptions like the Soxhlet extractor and Dean-Stark trap were born out of necessity. 

Despite having no personal experience with this old-time chemistry, I can see that things used to be a lot different around the lab. For starters, the standards for laboratory safety were a lot lower Way Back Then. It’s hard to imagine that smoking in a chemistry lab was ever an acceptable thing to do, or that the sink was a reasonable place to dispose of solvents. 

More incredible is the practice of tasting chemicals. I suppose it makes sense, if you consider that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, long before even UV-vis spectroscopy, there were very few ways to characterise a new compound. Melting point, color, density, and taste covered most of the qualities you could observe directly. 

An astounding example of why tasting chemicals is a bad idea comes from a paper on chromium compounds dated 1827.1 In this document the author explains the preparation of chromyl chloride, CrO2Cl2. In addition to the usual toxicity of chromium species, this compound is a ferocious oxidising agent. I find it amusing that immediately after describing its taste (’sweetish, astringent, and acid’), the author goes on to discuss how it causes nearly every organic material it comes in contact with to either explode or catch on fire. 

I have to wonder what it must have been like growing in an era more liberal about chemistry, when it was not uncommon to have a home laboratory in the basement next to the woodworking tools. In an autobiographical sketch, Linus Pauling has described how, as an 11-year old boy, he obtained 10 grammes of potassium cyanide for an insect-killing bottle. In those days you could get pure chemicals from the corner drug store. In Oliver Sacks’ memoir Uncle Tungsten, he recalls how he used to take a train to the Finchley suburb of London to visit a chemical supply house to stock his own home laboratory. Sacks was motivated by nothing more than intense curiosity about chemistry, but it’s remarkable that a young child was able to walk into a shop and buy things like potassium metal or nitric acid with impunity. 

Robert Woodward had a similar childhood, where he repeated chemistry experiments from a textbook that gave instructions on how to generate chlorine gas, among other things. I’ve seen some of these vintage texts, and the cavalier manner in which they describe the fun of making explosive nitrogen triiodide is striking. 

One has to wonder if Pauling, Sacks and Woodward would have ended up like they did if it were not for the very early hands-on experience they got with chemistry. Today’s chemistry sets may be safer, but they’re also a lot more boring. 

I have a modern chemistry set of my own sitting in a closet, which I keep mostly for novelty purposes. A miniscule bottle of sodium carbonate is about the most dangerous material it contains. And experiments like ’distillation of water’ aren’t nearly as thrilling as a nitrogen triiodide bang. 

The combination of environmental, health, and general societal concerns about chemicals falling into the wrong hands has made chemistry as a hobby all but impossible. Real chemistry is now essentially inaccessible unless a person is willing to dedicate years of study to the subject. It’s unlikely the world will see another child prodigy like Woodward - at least, not one that’s proficient in anything more than a baking soda volcano. 

Dylan Stiles is a PhD student in California, US.