Color in the Periodic Table: The First Hundred Years

Lunchtime Lectures
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Lunchtime Lecture by Bettina Bock von Wülfingen, Allington Fellow at the Science History Institute.

Symbolic use of color always played a salient role in the sciences in research and teaching, but use of color in historical diagrams is a lacuna in history of science. To investigate this use, though, often means uncovering a whole cosmology otherwise not explicit in a diagram.


Hand-drawn and colored-in periodic table

R.T. Sanderson’s periodic table redrawn and colored by Edward G. Mazurs.

Science History Institute

The periodic table provides a salient and iconic example of nonmimetic color use in science. Famous depictions are Andreas von Antropoff’s 1924 rectangular table of recurrent rainbow colors; Alcindo Flores Cabral’s 1951 application of color in his round snail form using the red-green-blue (RGB) scheme; and Edward Mazurs’s 1967 pine-tree system, in which he used warm and cold colors that he attributed to specific groups of elements—an attribution that relates back to humoralism and alchemy.

Beginning with the first periodic tables in the 19th century and continuing up to today, different researchers used different color regimes. Standardization plays an obvious role in chemistry and its diagrams, which makes the anarchy in color use in these diagrams all the more impressive. Von Wülfingen’s talk focuses on periodic tables in chemical journals and textbooks, and explores and compares the development of different color codes from John Newlands and Dmitri Mendeleev in the 1860s on to the 1960s.

This program is presented in celebration of the International Year of the Periodic Table.

About the Speaker

Bettina Bock von Wülfingen is a cultural historian of the life sciences, currently working on her project on color in scientific images. After completing her second thesis (the Habilitation) with a book titled Economies and the Cell: Conception and Heredity, 1900 and 2000, she became an associate professor at the Institute for Cultural History and Theory at the Humboldt-University Berlin (HU). Since then Bettina has held diverse guest professorships, and from 2014 to 2018 she was a researcher at the Cluster of Excellence “Image Knowledge Gestaltung” at the HU. Her PhD dissertation dealt with the change of the notion of health under the influence of assisted reproductive technologies (Genetisierung der Zeugung, 2007).

In addition to authoring many other publications in the history of science, she is editor of several anthologies on images in the sciences. The first, Traces: Generating What Was There (de Gruyter, 2017), was on the material capture of scientific proof in visual form; her most recent book is Color in the Sciences: Visualizing Achromatic Knowledge (de Gruyter, forthcoming).

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.