Seminars in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology
Dr Evan Hepler-Smith (Duke University)
Compound words, synthetic world: an information history of modern chemistry
The subject of this talk is the intellectual, social, and political history of modern chemistry’s canonical systems of information management, and the role of information management in the making of modern chemistry, circa 1870-1970. Systematic chemical names – names enacting a “molecular ideal” yoking material substances, molecular structures, and chemical classifications – were not just transcriptions of nature. Chemical handbooks were not just storehouses of data. Rather, these information technologies were products of, tools for, and infrastructure guiding chemical science and industry’s world-making, world-breaking growth. I tell this history in my book in progress, Compound Words: Chemists, Information, and the Synthetic World. Drawn from the end of my book, this talk shows how computing enthusiasts of the 1950s-60s made common cause with European and American chemical manufacturers, reference book publishers, science policymakers, and an emerging community of "literature chemists." Their efforts to digitize, mechanize, and institutionalize the management of chemical information did not replace the print-born molecular ideal, but reinforced it. Thus, did a molecule-by-molecule approach to chemical indexing, an old bureaucratic fiction just close enough to nature to be mistaken for it, come to determine what substances counted within new organs for governing drugs, industrial chemicals, and environmental health.