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Chemistry without Principles: Herman Boerhaave on Instruments and Elements

  • John C. Powers
Part of the Archimedes New Studies In The History And Philosophy Of Science and Technology book series (ARIM, volume 18)

One of the more curious phenomena in the history of eighteenth-century chemistry was the reemergence of the four Aristotelian elements (fire, air, earth, and water) and of the alchemical notion of chemical “menstrua,” and the recasting of these five as “instruments.” These five instruments were defined as tools which the chemist utilized to instigate or prevent specific motions in matter during chemical operations. As such, the instruments and their specific properties occupied a prominent place in many pedagogical presentations of chemistry and were also the subject of theoretical discussion and experimental research. While some eighteenth-century chemists and more modern historians have referred to the “instruments” as “elements” (or “instrumentelements”), they were not elements in the traditional, Aristotelian sense. They did not (as the Aristotelians held) enter into the composition of all bodies, and in fact, the extent to which the instruments, especially “air” and “fire,” combined chemically with any other body was very much a topic for debate. In the seventeenth century, the earliest discussions by Daniel Sennert (c. 1620s) and the early university lectures of Georg Stahl (c. 1680s) clearly placed the instruments within the context of understanding the mechanisms or natural philosophy of chemical operations as distinct from problems of composition. Derived from this context, the instruments in the eighteenth century represented a relatively novel shift in the interests of philosophically-minded chemists towards problems regarding the action and mechanisms of chemical operations.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Seventeenth Century Chemical Phenomenon Chemical Principle Didactic Presentation 
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References

Notes

  1. 1.
    On the notion of instrument-elements, see Rosaleen Love, “Herman Boerhaave and the Element-Instrument Concept of Fire,” Annals of Science 31, 1974, 547–59; David Oldroyd, “An Examination of G. E. Stahl’s Philosophical Principles of Universal Chemistry,” Ambix 20, 1973, 36–52.Google Scholar
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  32. 32.
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    Ibid., 186–91; quotation on 191.Google Scholar
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    For the “Spiritus rector” experiments, see Boerhaave, Elements, 47–49; on Boerhaave’s “Mercury” (the alchemical “mercury” principle), see John C. Powers. “Herman Boerhaave and the Pedagogical Reform of Eighteenth-Century Chemistry,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Indiana University, 2001, 121–33.Google Scholar
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    Boerhaave, Elements, 47.Google Scholar
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    For his lecture course, see Boerhaave, “Collegium Chemicum,” fols. 1r–93v; for lists of operations presented in Boerhaave’s demonstration course, see fols. 143r–78v.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    This dichotomy was exemplified by Boerhaave’s two medical textbooks, his Institutiones medicae, which was based on his theory course in medicine, and his Aphorisms, which presented rules of thumb for treatment based on his praxis medica course; see Boerhaave, Institutiones medicae (Leiden, 1708) and Aphorismi de cognoscendis et curandis morboris (Leiden, 1709).Google Scholar
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    For example, the tenth edition of Nicolas Lemery’s extremely popular Cours de chymie devoted 68 pages to definitions, principles, and apparatus and 860 pages to operations, Nicolas Lemery, Cours de chymie, 10th ed. (Paris, 1713). On the problems with didactic chemistry in Leiden more generally, see John C. Powers, “Chemistry Enters the University: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts,” History of Universities 21, 2006, 77–116.Google Scholar
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    Johannes Bohn, Dissertationes chymico-physicae, chemiae finem, instrumenta et operationes frequentiores explicantes (Leipzig, 1685). Note that the dates of the exercises and name of each student defendens were printed at the beginning of each set of theses.Google Scholar
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    Bohn, Dissertationes, “De Ignis,” paragraph 1.Google Scholar
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    Bohn, “De Ignis,” paragraphs 19–21. On Mayow’s “aerial-niter,” see Henry Guerlac, “John Mayow and the Aerial Nitre, Studies in the Chemistry of John Mayow – I,” 332–49 in Actes du Septième Congrès International d’Histoire des Sciences (Jerusalem, 1953); Robert G. Frank, Jr., Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists: A Study of Scientific Ideas and Social Interaction (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980), 224–74.Google Scholar
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    Boerhaave argued that the pressure of the air kept the particles of combustibles in close proximity to one another, allowing fire (the instrument) to work effectively. See Boerhaave, Elements, 185 and 205–07.Google Scholar
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    These lectures are recorded in Boerhaave, “Praelectiones chemiae,” VMA, Fund XIII, MS 7.Google Scholar
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© Springer 2007

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  • John C. Powers

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