The Creative Power of Paper Tools in Early Nineteenth-Century Chemistry

  • Ursula Klein
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 222)


Chemical formulas, such as H2O for water or C2H60 for alcohol, were introduced by the Swedish chemist Jacob Berzelius in two articles published in 1813 and 1814.2 From the late 1820s onward, Berzelian formulas began to spread, at first in organic chemistry, then in increasingly different forms in other chemical domains. The various epistemic functions of this sign system have been largely ignored by historians and philosophers of science. To date, we have no detailed analysis of their application in chemical practices. In many historical overviews, Berzelian formulas are mentioned, but only to characterize them as precursors of structural and stereochemical formulas that do not deserve much. attention in their own right.3 There are various reasons for this neglect. Many historians of science conceive of Berzelian formulas as representations of an atomic theory which was much better represented by verbal language or by Daltonian diagrams. Others have claimed that they were surrogates for names, and expressed sheer empirical findings, namely stoichiometric and volumetric laws. In both cases, Berzelian formulas figure as a passive medium for pre-existing knowledge. For example, the French philosopher François Dagognet wrote about them:

The first mode of writing, which merely translated speech by applying letters and vocal symbols, hardly offers any advantage (in comparison with spoken chemistry which it perpetuates)... this stenography will occupy or invade chemistry during the first half of the nineteenth century until that moment (rather near) when its insufficiencies will become obvious. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was mainly preached by Berzelius who established the rules of its application.4


Binary Compound Binary Constitution Partial Formula Rational Formula European Chemist 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ursula Klein
    • 1
  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBerlinGermany

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