Neon is a dull and invisible gas until it’s trapped in a tube and zapped with electricity. Literally pulled out of thin air, neon became the bright light of the modern world, a symbol of progress, and an essential component of the electronic age.
Before becoming a synonym for cinema, celluloid was never quite a star attraction. But able to imitate expensive materials like ivory, tortoiseshell, and linen, the first successful synthetic plastic played a subtle role in shaping consumer culture.
In the 19th century chemical oblivion replaced liquor, opiates, and bleeding as the numbing agent of choice in the surgeon’s toolkit. Anesthesia—transformed from chemical oddity and party favorite into an essential element of Civil War operating theaters—fundamentally changed patients’ psychological and physical experiences of surgery.
In the early 19th century people dreamed of using light to paint permanent images. A legislator, a showman, and an inventor together created the first practical way to catch the world and the people in it in the strange and beautiful chemistry of the photograph.