Images of Modernity

Our major exhibition, Making Modernity, tells the story of the long march toward scientific progress that defines the modern world.

By Mary Ellen Bowden, Erin McLeary | November 12, 2008
Making Modernity exhibition at the Museum at CHF.

Making Modernity exhibition at the Museum at CHF, now the Science History Institute.

Science History Institute

The possibilities seemed endless. When Bakelite, the first wholly synthetic plastic, exploded onto the manufacturing scene a century ago, it seemed it could be made into anything. In toothbrushes, furniture, and medical devices, this new synthetic stuff of life quickly became the mark of modernity. Yet this novel invention did not emerge out of a vacuum. Natural plastics had been developed during the 19th century, and celluloid, a semisynthetic plastic made from treated cellulose, was introduced in 1869 and soon replaced natural substances as diverse as ivory and linen.

The history of the chemical and molecular sciences is rife with examples of revolutionary innovations that seem to have emerged from a scientific void. Such important developments and discoveries as atomic theory, the periodic table, oxygen, mauve, plutonium, the silicon chip, and penicillin seem to have had sudden, paradigm-shifting impacts on our world and our history. But progress toward these developments was often slow and steady. From ancient glassmakers to nanotechnologists, medieval mine masters to modern chemical engineers, early brewers to 21st-century pharmaceutical scientists, the chemical innovators who have revolutionized our society and daily lives have relied on the research and knowledge that preceded them.

Making Modernity, a major new exhibition celebrating the influence of science on the modern world, explores the long history of scientific progress in the workshop, laboratory, factory, classroom, and home. Drawn from CHF’s world-class collections, the exhibition ranges from cosmetics to computers and includes scientific instruments and apparatus, rare books, fine art, and the personal papers of prominent scientists. In this slideshow, iconic images from Making Modernity offer a small window onto the exhibit’s sweeping story of the world’s central science.

Mr. Wizard

Mr. Wizard, ca. 1950s.

Mr. Wizard, ca. 1950s.

Mr. Wizard Studios

Popular science in the 20th century shifted from targeting adults in the lecture hall to children in their homes; showmen-scientists who once wowed adult audiences were replaced by television shows aimed at ever younger children. For almost 50 years children tuned in to Don Herbert's "Mr. Wizard" television show to watch Herbert and his youthful assistants conduct simple scientific experiments. the 1950s witnessed an explosions of kid-centered products and entertainment that would engage American youth in chemical pursuits. Bright colors, child-oriented graphics, and an emphasis on fun marked science as a child's activity. For many educators and parents in the post-Sputnik era, children's scientific literacy was a competitive necessity in a globalizing world. While educators debated methods of teaching science, entrepreneurs marketed a dizzying array of science toys to anxious parents. The most popular science toy of all time, the chemistry set, lost its band in the late 20th century; increasing cultural concerns about children's safety and fear of lawsuits eliminated most of its chemicals.

Caustic Pot House Stacks Full Painting

Caustic Pot House Stacks

Arthur Henry Knighton-Hammond (1875–1970), Caustic Pot House Stacks, “A” Power Stack, “A” Pump Station, and “A” Evaporator Building, 1920, oil on canvas.

Henry H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation

The bright, hazy sky, the streaming smokestacks, and the vibrant, sunny colors of this painting of a Dow Chemical Company factory illustrate the admiration many had for industrial production in the first half of the 20th century. But the waste and pollution generated by industry in the United States was already evident by the 1920s. “We are a prodigal people,” chemical educator and consultant Arthur D. Little wrote in 1928, “prospering for a time by methods which would end European civilization within a generation.” Abundant natural resources, wide open spaces, and plentiful water supplies encouraged destructive practices in chemical and other industries well into the 20th century. Scientists recognized the perils inherent in some widely used chemical processes and battled to rid workplaces and the environment of pollutants. It might have taken clairvoyance, however, to foresee the unintended negative consequences of technologies first thought to provide great boons to civilization.

William Lewis’s laboratory in Kingston, London

William Lewis’s laboratory in Kingston, London

Detail, William Lewis’s laboratory in Kingston, London. Drawn by S. Wale, engraved by P. C. Canot. From Commercium Philosophico-Technicum; or, The Philosophical Commerce of Arts Designed as an Attempt to Improve Arts, Trades, and Manufactures, Volume I. William Lewis. London, 1765.

Science History Institute/Douglas A. Lockard

In 1756 Scottish chemist Joseph Black introduced a novel method for studying ephemeral gases: by their weight. By using sensitive instruments to carefully weigh solid starting materials and products, Black could track the release of a gas from a heated solid and its subsequent precipitation back to that solid. Later, in the 19th century, new questions about the fundamental nature of matter were sparked by the findings that optical and electrical instruments afforded. These new tools allowed chemists to explore the molecular and electrical properties of matter, changing both theory and practice. These developments eventually led to the electronics revolution in chemical instrumentation: the Second Chemical Revolution.

Woven textile of Supplex Taslite nylon

Supplex Taslite

Woven textile of Supplex Taslite nylon laminated to a bicomponent membrane of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), 2008.

W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc.

Technological breakthroughs of the 1930s and 1940s, like the advent of nylon, pointed to the power of the laboratory in devising new, man-made materials that would transform daily life. As chemists’ control over synthetics has grown, scientists and manufacturers have been increasingly able to control these materials at fundamental levels. Chemists can now, for instance, “juggle the atoms” of the polymeric material known as Gore-Tex, allowing it to be precisely engineered for highly specific purposes, from breathable textiles to tiny patches that are implanted into the heart. The above cross-sectional image shows at a molecular level how Gore-Tex is constructed: nylon is laminated to a membrane of ePTFE. Modern chemical scientists have become the alchemists of molecules, transforming them in ways and for purposes that were not remotely possible even one generation ago.

10th- or 11th-century Greek alchemical illustrations

10th- or 11th-century Greek alchemical illustrations

10th- or 11th-century Greek alchemical illustrations. Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris, 1888).

Science History Institute

From ancient glassmakers, pigment grinders, and brewers to 21st-century pharmaceutical chemists, chemical engineers, and nanotechnologists, those who have acquired an intimate familiarity with matter and how to manipulate it have helped provide much of the material stuff of civilizations past and present. Often for the sheer joy of knowing, alchemists, chemists, and today’s molecular scientists have sought to expand humankind’s understanding of matter from the atomic to the galactic.




Female workers manufacturing transistors

Female workers manufacturing transistors

Photograph of female workers manufacturing transistors in Allentown, Pennsylvania, ca. 1950s. AGERE Systems Collection.

National Canal Museum, Easton, Pennsylvania

Developed in the late 19th century, vacuum tubes, X-ray tubes, and lightbulbs offered scientists, physicians, and consumers a new level of control over space and time. The tiny transistor, developed in the late 1940s as a rugged alternative to the delicate vacuum tube, shrank space even more dramatically. Researchers at Bell Labs in the late 1940s working on a solid-state amplifier were exultant when they succeeded in creating one from a sliver of the semiconductor germanium and some wires. This tiny device, which they dubbed the “transistor,” performed many of the same switching and amplifying functions as the vacuum tube, but at a greatly reduced size. Although early transistors were quirky and fickle handmade devices, within a few years improved transistors began to replace vacuum tubes in such applications as radios, hearing aids, and telephone circuits.

Intel C4004 chip on 4004 CPU board

Intel C4004 chip on 4004 CPU board, 1971

Intel C4004 chip on 4004 CPU board, 1971.

Science History Institute

As engineers made increasingly complex circuits using individual transistors, they began to struggle with squeezing all the components into smaller and smaller spaces. The technological breakthrough of the integrated circuit, or chip, helped solve this problem: the chip’s components are etched right onto a single piece of semiconducting material. The circuits imprinted on chips are too tiny to be drawn by human hands. Instead, chemical processes using tiny beams of light and light-sensitive chemicals coax the desired electrical behavior out of the piece of silicon. In 1971 the Intel Corporation unveiled what was thought to be an impossible achievement: a single chip with the power of a computer.

Making Modernity is made possible by the generous support of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.