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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.2 (2006) 258-263

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Contextualizing Scientific Discovery from Alchemy to Electrochemistry

Pennsylvania State University
Mordechai Feingold. The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture. (New York: The New York Public Library, 2004). Pp. 218. $22.50.
June Z. Fullmer. Young Humphry Davy: The Making of an Experimental Chemist. (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 2000). Pp. 385. $30.00. [End Page 258]
William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe. Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). Pp. 344. $29.00.
Giuliano Pancaldi. Volta: Science and Culture in the Age of Enlightenment. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). Pp. 381. $24.95.

In recent years, the role of context has become a focal point in the historiography of science. Recognizing that scientific theory and practice cannot be unproblematically isolated from the time and place of their creation, historians of science are increasingly challenging the traditional narratives that reduce the production of scientific knowledge to a linear succession of key experiments and theories. The four books reviewed here reflect this trend; while the authors do not all share the same contextual focus, they all seek to present a narrative of scientific discovery that goes beyond the confines of the laboratory. Without minimizing the individual accomplishments of the scientists they are studying, they make skillful use of both primary and secondary sources to situate the works of Robert Boyle, George Starkey (Newman and Principe), Isaac Newton (Feingold), Alessandro Volta (Pancaldi), and Humphry Davy (Fullmer) in the socio-cultural, political, and intellectual climates in which they were produced.

In Alchemy Tried in the Fire, Newman and Principe focus primarily on intellectual context, seeking to correct the commonly held belief that seventeenth-century chemistry represented a radical break from the traditions of medieval alchemy. Building upon their earlier studies of the English chemist Boyle, whose Sceptical Chymist is traditionally viewed as one of the first works of modern chemistry, and the American-born Starkey, who penned several alchemical tracts under the pseudonym of Eirenaeus Pilalethes, they argue convincingly that a close examination of "the content and practice of laboratory chymistry in the early modern period" (2) reveals more continuity than rupture with alchemy. The return to the archaic spelling "chymistry" further underscores this continuity; as explained in Newman and Principe's 1998 article, "Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake" (Early Science and Medicine 3 [1998] 32–65), the use of "chymistry" to represent the undifferentiated domain of seventeenth-century alchemy/chemistry enables one to avoid the anachronism and potential arbitrariness resulting from the use of the modern terms.

The first chapter introduces Boyle and Starkey, focusing on the differences in their educations and early intellectual interests. Prior to their meeting in early 1651, the two men "were, in more than one way, an ocean apart" (7); Starkey, who was to become Boyle's principal tutor in chemistry, was by then already a highly experienced laboratory chemist while Boyle's experimental efforts were still limited and secondary to his ethical preoccupations. His efforts to improve the moral character of humanity had already resulted in several examples of devotional literature, including a set of fictional letters entitled Amorous Controversies, intended to instill in readers a profound devotion to God. But as the authors note, due to Starkey's influence, "within a very few years his devotion to devotion would be transmuted into a devotion to experimental natural philosophy" (7). The chapter concludes with a discussion of Boyle's presentation of his relationship to the chemistry of his day, which strengthens the book's continuity thesis by demonstrating that Boyle's desire to distinguish himself from his predecessors led him to misrepresent the revolutionary nature of his own work. Chapter Two traces the development of chemistry from the late medieval period to the [End Page 259] work of Starkey's own preceptor, Joan Baptista Van Helmont. The use of quantitative techniques commonly thought to have originated with Antoine Lavoisier's "balance-sheet" method in the late eighteenth...


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