Ancient chemical laboratories

17 October 2015 - #oldtimechem

Last week the remains of a chemical laboratory were discovered in a University of Virginia building (link). The Rotunda as it is called was designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1822 and prominently visible in the lab is a chemical hearth. Certainly the oldest lab in existence in the USA but how about the oldest existing lab on the planet?

The laboratory where Justig von Liebig taught chemistry between 1824 and 1852 can still be visited in the German town of Giessen (link). It evaded train station expansion plans and a WWII bombing raid. Nice detail: the leaded glass in the fume hoods.

Earlier in 1773 Joseph Priestly set up shop in Bowood House in England. In its laboratory that still exists today Priestly in 1774 discovered oxygen - though he called it dephlogisticated air (link). To the untrained eye the interior of the lab is nothing but bookshelves and a fire place. Not much of a lab except for the bench-like table in the centre. Priestly discovered his oxygen by exposing mercury oxide to sunlight so we may guess that the actual chemistry action was taking place outside in the yard (safer!).

This blog has already featured a report on a visit to the Baruchsen laboratory in operation between 1702 and 1723 in the Dutch city of Utrecht (Link). Back in 1702 the location was an abandoned fortress so Baruchsen could only hurt himself in his experiments. Pretty impressive but Utrecht can not claim to host the oldest lab in the world.

How about that alchemist Isaac Newton? His base of operations was the University of Cambridge between 1667 and 1696. As the university has hardly changed since then and since the English are known for meticulous record keeping it must be an easy task to at least pinpoint the location of his lab even if it no longer exists today. Not so. As P.E. Spargo explains in the South African Journal of Science (2005) things are complicated. As a student Newton had to his disposal a private garden that could only be accessed from his private rooms. The garden had a water pump and a wooden shed but contrary to popular belief the shed was probably not the laboratory. A 1998 analysis of soil samples revealed the presence of gold, copper and arsenic at a location near one of the garden walls but a serious excavation of the site has yet to take place.

No, the oldest-lab-in-the-world award goes to the alchemical laboratory rediscovered in 2002 in Prague (Link). It was commissioned by Emperor Rudolf II between 1580 and 1620 and is believed to have been the place of work of illustrious alchemists such as Edward Kelley and John Dee. There you have it. And there is no point in looking further back for example to the Roman Empire. For all their innovations - concrete, metal working, dyes - the Romans never needed a lab for that.

And how about chemical laboratories from the twentieth century worth preserving? The Cavendish Laboratory of DNA fame is fully operational but as a physics lab as the chemists moved out a long time ago to another part of town. Well, we have the Linus Pauling chalkboard (link). Laboratories are places of work and shutting down one just for the sake of preservation is expensive!

Anecdote. In the early nineties the Royal Shell laboratory in Amsterdam used to have a small chemical museum. I had the pleasure to visit it as part of a group a students from Delft University. The guy showing us around in the museum was clearly proud of an old chemical lab on display, with a distinct 1950's look with everything wood-panelled in dark colors and nothing like the bright and shiny modern labs that were actually in use. The Delft delegation was unimpressed. The lab looked exactly like the lab back in Delft they worked in every day. An uncomfortable silence ensued.


#oldtimechem 2015