We forget today, in these days of the two cultures, just how close the arts and sciences once were. The era of the romantic poets, for example, was also an incredibly exciting time for chemistry, as new elements started to be discovered and explored. Humphrey Davy, for example, was not only a scientist, but a poet and an editor of Lyrical Ballads and many of the romantics looked to the clear language of the sciences to help them in defining the language for their new style.

Portrait of Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Davy was the first person to isolate potassium and sodium

It’s from this period that the new exhibition at the Royal Society originates and gets its name. Although the displays begin with the discovery of phosphorus by Hennig Brand in 1669 the real explosion came in the hundred years from the mid-1700s.

From the society’s archives have come manuscript after manuscript claiming discovery of a new element, perhaps from samples brought back from an expedition in the Americas and for a time forgotten in the British Museum (niobium), or closer to home, first described as magnetic sand from Cornwall (titanium).

For anyone interested in the history of our discipline, getting to view so many important manuscripts and the stories behind them is a rare treat. Not only are there handwritten submissions to the Proceedings of the Royal Society, but also laboratory manifests, still using alchemical symbols in the 19th century, letters and even a pamphlet campaigning against Davy’s candidacy for president of the Royal Society.

Charles Hatchett’s element colombium, now called niobium, was found in a mineral sample sent to the Royal Society from America by John Winthrop FRS (1681-1747)

Also in in each cabinet are a variety of other artefacts relating to the scientists or discovery featured. The highlight for me were the palladium ingots entrusted to the society by the metal’s discoverer, William Hyde Wollaston, and used to supply the societies members with samples of this element, which at the time was even scarcer and more valuable than it is today.

Ultimately, this small but carefully chosen collection of artefacts charts the growing interest and excitement surrounding chemistry as the world began to open up to European explorers and scientists. For anyone already nearby, or perhaps in London for another reason, I would certainly recommend you take an hour out to perhaps acquaint yourself with some more of the names and works of the romantic chemists.

The exhibition is opens its doors on Monday 03 December 2012 and runs until Friday 14 June 2013 at the Royal Society, Carlton Terrace, London. It is free to visit and is open on Tuesdays from 2pm to 4pm and on Thursdays from 10am to 12pm. No appointment is necessary during those times.

Laura Howes

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