Chemical Heritage Foundation

A CHF blog that brings the stories of science and culture directly to you.


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    Archaeology Exhibit

    The photographs above are from an archaeology exhibit at the First Presbyterian Church of Kensington on July 17. These artifacts were found by Doug Mooney’s Digging I-95 project. The latest episode of Distillations podcast goes into more depth about the project and urban archaeology.

    In a Philadelphia basement a family buried their pet dog and hamster with a doll’s head. More than 200 years later, archaeologists excavated the basement and found the curious burial ground. Why did the family bury their pets inside their home? What significance did the doll head have? No one knows, but a group of archaeologists working on the Digging I-95 project are studying a plethora of artifacts to learn about the lives of Philadelphians from the 1800s.

    Working for the URS Corporation and led by Doug Mooney, these archaeologists are excavating sections of I-95 to ensure that valuable history is not destroyed when construction on the freeway begins. So far they have found many informative (and strange) things left behind by 19th-century Philadelphians. On July 17 I went to an exhibition at the First Presbyterian Church of Kensington to see what they dug up.

    Many of the objects on display were made of glass. The neighborhood being excavated was once inhabited largely by employees of Dyottsville Glassworks, a major glass factory in the 17th century. During breaks or after work, workers would use their glass-blowing skills to create personal projects  known as “whimsies.” Researchers have identified many of these objects in the I-95 site, including toys, glasses, and even lactation aids. The archaeologist presenting the glass lactation aid was not entirely sure how it was used. “It looks extremely uncomfortable,” a spectator commented.

    Another archaeologist was using UV light to show what elements a drinking glass was made from. One of the glasses glowed yellowish-green under the light, indicating that it contained uranium. “Don’t worry,” the archaeologist assured onlookers. “There is not enough uranium to harm you. Unless you were to grind up the glass and eat it.” Uranium and other elements were used to add color to glass before the danger of radiation was fully understood.

    At another table, an archaeologist explained how they recreated cologne recipes by cross-referencing labels on the empty bottles they found with the ingredients listed in historical books and magazines. According to The Virginia Housewife, making Hungarian Water requires “one pint spirits of wine, one ounce oil of rosemary, two drachms essence of ambergris.” It smells sort of like incense.

    We’ll be talking to Doug Mooney and Deidre Kelleher (an archaeologist doing work at Philadelphia’s Elfreth’s Alley, which is right down the road from CHF) in August’s Distillations podcast about archaeology and chemistry. To listen to previous episodes of Distillations, look for it on iTunes or go to CHF’s website.

    By Jacob Roberts

    Coffee and Quinine


    Historian Jon Grinspan wrote in the New York Times recently that during the American Civil War Southerners desperately roasted and brewed everything from potatoes to acorns in hope of simulating coffee. Even if coffee couldn’t cure disease, it may have been valued above any medicine by soldiers on both sides of the war. According to Grinspan, troops gushed about coffee in their diaries and letters, some going so far as to cite it as the reason they were still alive.

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    Tumblr Topic: Alchemy in Art

    Follow the ChemHeritage Alchemy in Art board on Pinterest.

    Our April 2014 Tumblr Topic explores the colorful history of pigments, painters, and the conservators who save this legacy from the ravages of time and accidental chemistry. Participate in our webcast on April 16 using the hashtag #SciCulture and follow us here for more blog posts on the topic. We’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on this topic. Share the theme using this url:

    Art and Science: Two Parts of a Whole

    By Michal Meyer

    Are art and science ying and yang, essential yet opposite parts of our world?

    We can trace the origins of material science to the first cave drawings made thousands of years ago. The artists who left these pictures likely began with trial and error attempts made with burned wood and colored dirt. Even then art and science were mingling, taking physical form through pigment.

    Art and science also meet in fascinating ways in the Dutch alchemical paintings that were so popular in the 17th century. Not only did these paintings show alchemists at work, they required the skills of alchemists in producing some of the pigments used in them. Elisabeth Berry Drago uses one particular painting to trace out the connections between art and alchemy in the 17th century. These paintings also fascinate historian and chemist Larry Principe, who discusses his favorite here.

    Science and art also work together in the preserving of paintings. Time is not kind to paintings, and natural disasters are positively cruel to them. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina ripped through a collection of American art in Biloxi, Mississippi, leaving many paintings in ruins. Conservators used hi-tech scanners and knowledge of chemistry and art to help them restore the damaged paintings.

    But science goes beyond the art that hangs in galleries. It plays just as big a role in children’s art. Rediscover your inner child through the crayon and the science used to make it. (The audio story of crayons begins at 6:14.)

    You are invited to watch art historian Elisabeth Berry Drago and conservator Mark F. Bockrath explore the colorful history of pigments as part of our live webcast. Join us April 16 at 6:30 p.m. EDT.

    How Victorian Science Writers Enchanted my Kid and Made Me Believe in Fairy Tales

    By Jeff Guin

    One of the first public events I attended at CHF featured employees skipping through our museum in brightly colored wings and gauzy pastel dresses. It was a total fairy tale and yet totally true from both a historical and scientific perspective.

    Implausible, I know, but here’s the video proof from that day (warning, it’s 11 minutes):

    If you look closely, you’ll see my daughter in the lower right corner of the introductory sequence. She’s important to this story because her wide-eyed reaction struck a spark of understanding in me about what it means to keep historical memory about science engaging and new.

    The play was adapted by CHF staff members based on a genre of richly illustrated science books from the Victorian era. These books were written to help children see the unseeable. Authors like Arabella Buckley and Lucy Rider Meyer described chemical reactions as high-adventure fairy tales, portraying atoms as “atomic fairies” and molecular bonding as the fairies’ dancing. 

    I was reminded of the play about three weeks ago when I spoke about my work in digital media for CHF at the career day my daughter’s school was holding. There I demoed an unfinished version of the concept (time 2:06) as imagined by student animators through CHF’s partnership with University of the Arts. The children were captivated. At the end, they clapped and begged to see it again—even the boys! 

    The kids’ excitement was matched by my own—I recognized my daughter’s expression of wonder from the play reflected in the eyes of her peers (who reported me “cool,” incidentally).

    The fairyland of science concept is timeless, but our role in exposing new generations to these ideas remains important. Science relies on facts, but it is truly magical. Historical wisdom shows that making the connection to facts begins with a narrative, one that appeals to the imagination of the intended audience. 

    More than one colleague has accused me of having a third grade brain.  These fairyland experiences have taught me how much more fascinating humanity’s historic and scientific legacy can be when seen through third grade eyes. 


    Make sure to listen to the audio podcast about this topic and download our iTunes app for free.

    Want to more about the Victorian Fairy Folk genre of books? Watch this three-minute video narrated by scholar Melanie Keene

    Jingle Bell Science: Michael Faraday as Pop Icon

    By Jacob Roberts 

    In 1825 Michael Faraday started a series of science lectures at the Royal Institution aimed at young people. Faraday gave 19 talks, including a series about the chemical history of the candle. It was so popular that it was published in a book still in print today. The magic of Faraday’s lectures was built on two devices: he used everyday objects familiar to his audience (such as a candle) to explain abstract scientific concepts, and he employed the tools of theater to amaze people, capturing their imagination with demonstrations of combustion, electricity, and magnetism. To many it must have looked like magic. But the real trick Faraday pulled was showing people that it wasn’t magical at all; these were real applications of math and science that anyone could understand. What came to be known as the “Christmas lectures” started a trend of accessible science.

    The Christmas lectures are still being given at the Royal Institution. Modern science personalities, such as Carl Sagan, have taken over Faraday’s job as academic liaison to the public. Sagan’s 1977 lecture contextualized the planets in the solar system, showing how small and fragile Earth really is. In many ways Sagan illuminated astronomy for nonscientists just as Faraday popularized chemistry. While Faraday’s platform was a podium in a lecture hall, Sagan became famous for his books, television series, and willingness to tackle topics that few academics would touch, such as extraterrestrial life.

    At school, I always made sure to take at least one science course each semester in part because of Sagan’s work. He captured my imagination when I read about the Golden Record he helped create for Voyager spacecraft, probes that were sent careening into interstellar space in 1977 and continue to send data back to Earth. The Golden Record was encoded with a message to other sentient species with operating instructions that could be decoded using numbers associated with the hydrogen atom. Sagan postulated that if we had anything in common with other intelligent life across the galaxy, it would be our understanding of the universal truths of chemistry and physics.

    William Sanford Nye, better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy, was arguably more influential in my youth than even Sagan. Nye’s television show and lecture appearances have always been close in spirit to Faraday’s original Christmas lectures. Bill Nye the Science Guy focused on experimentation and debunked common misconceptions in science while encouraging viewers to always remain skeptical, all while providing a healthy dose of humor. In a classic example of Nye’s show, he explained static electricity in a (literally) hands-on experiment.

    Nye’s commitment to rationalism inspired an entire generation of people who grew up in the 1990s and are now entering college and the working world. A recent article in the New York Times describes the fever pitch his presence created on the campus of Iowa State University, representative of the celebrity he still commands more than a decade after his show stopped production. His subject matter has grown up along with his fans. Today he is a public advocate and teacher of science, speaking out against critics of global warming and evolution.

    Introducing science to children at an early age is a necessary part of creating a responsible, intelligent society. People like Faraday, Sagan, and Nye are the bridge between academics and the general public. I wish more professional scientists would spend time teaching and telling stories. Until they do, inspiration for science can come from anywhere. I didn’t learn how a point on the outside of a rotating record moves faster than a point on the inside at school; I learned it from reading Calvin and Hobbes. So did this guy.

    Drawing stories of science with graphic novelist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

    Peek into the studio of author and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, who reveals the creative process behind his recent book, Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb.

    Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Bert Hansen will be telling true stories at CHF on January 22, and you are invited to watch via webcast. “Drawing History: Telling the Stories of Science through Comics and Graphic Novels” will air at 6:30 p.m. EST. Watch it live at

    Tweet to #HistChem for a chance to win a signed copy of the graphic novel “Trinity”


    If you haven’t heard yet, CHF has a terrific #HistChem show lined up for Jan. 22. It’s all about connecting to history through graphic arts, particularly comics and graphic novels. 

    By participating in the conversation around this show through Twitter or through our Tumblr page, you could win a signed copy of Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb. This genre-defining book was authored by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm who will guest on the webcast along with historian Bert Hansen

    For a chance to snag a signed copy of Trinity that will also include a unique sketch by Jonathan:

    • Share your thoughts on the topic, questions for guests, and (especially) any media of this kind that you’ve created yourself.
    • Send your message to @chemheritage using the hashtag #HistChem anytime before the Jan. 22 show.
    • Visit on Jan. 22 at 6:30 p.m. EST to watch the show. If your tweet or Tumblr comment is mentioned on our webcast, you win the book! 
    • It’s okay to send more than one question or comment for consideration as long as they are conceptually distinct.

    We hope you’ll join us and participate in the discussion during the show as well. Good luck!

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