Classic Kit

Classic Kit – A History of Chemistry in 120-ish Objects

Like most trades, chemists use a huge variety of tools, each of which has its own special name. Some, like a funnel, a condenser, or a still head, are almost self-explanatory. Others are words that derive from one or more other languages (e.g. alembic, retort – true, we don’t use either of these much these days – or spatula).But many others are named after people. Have you ever wondered who these people were? Some were famous chemists who made enormous theoretical or practical contributions to the subject. Others, on the other hand, are really obscure individuals – scientists or glassblowers – who are now only remembered through that piece of kit. These short essays are therefore a tribute to our chemical ancestors, men (not, I’m sorry to say, too many women so far…. suggestions please?) who changed the way we do our chemistry and related sciences. The list is alphabetical.




















  • Ubbelohde’s Hanging Level Viscometer, Chemistry World, coming soon.





At the outset I imagined that writing the column might be a bit of a sinecure – that I might “stand on the shoulders of giants” and quickly dash off my several hundred words each month and soon become both rich and famous. The approach of the deadline for the first column soon disabused me of that notion. I came to realize that this would be rather more of an effort than I had anticipated and while some of the pieces were quite easy to write others took much hunting around, trawling of the literature, and archives on the web. Some have been up to three years in the making

I am grateful to a variety of people – Richard van Noorden, Phillip Broadwith, Philip Robinson, and Chris Chapman, my editors, and countless chemists, glassblowers, historians, German speakers, relatives, genealogists, former students, colleagues and other enthusiasts – who have helped me along the way.

The choice of kit and individuals has always been tricky – I have tried as much as I could to switch between different areas of chemistry – from synthetic to analytical to physical and industrial, by way of biological and atmospheric. I always welcome suggestions. If anyone has ideas, by all means email me: a.sella “at” ucl-dot-ac-dot-uk.


15 Responses to Classic Kit

  1. akshatrathi294 says:

    Nice to see your blog. I just read your column in CW. Really liked your description of water (while introducing the Dean-Stark apparatus. You do really good job at writing this column. 🙂

    • solarsaddle says:

      It is rather ironic that the Dean-Stark piece should appear just as oil/water emulsions should start lapping onto the muds and sands of the Gulf of Mexico. The whole business wants to make one weep with the helplessness and frustration of it.

  2. Dr Sue Cavell says:

    Andrea, what about Calvet’s Bomb Calorimeter, a piece of apparatus I used in the Chemistry Dept at Manchester University some 30 years ago.
    Cheers, Sue Cavell

    • solarsaddle says:

      I know nothing about it, but calorimetry is a BIG deal. Something along those lines should definitely be done. I’ll look into it. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: A little podcast – Elements 116/118 | Solarsaddle's Blog

  4. Saunders says:

    Solarsaddle, will you share the story of the development of Aldrich’s Oxford® Sure/Seal™ storage valve-cap? It’s shame that it doesn’t bear its inventor’s / developer’s /refiner’s name.

    • Andrea Sella says:

      I see that my secret is out. No, not about the Sure/Seal storage valve cap. It might be fun. For a long time I’ve harboured a secret desire to do an April Fool’s column and have had an idea in mind. Maybe we could conspire together…..

  5. ip camera says:

    Mind-blowing article bro. This kind of is just a enormously nicely structured piece of writing, just the awesome info I was looking regarding. I praise you

  6. Andrea, I’m delighted to see all these great columns collected in one place! And I am proud to have had the pleasure of editing some of them 🙂

    • Andrea Sella says:

      Well, Richard, in many ways I blame you for causing all this trouble…….. It’s a fun project and I keep learning interesting stuff doing it.

  7. Nick Day says:

    Hi Andrea, Just in case it’s unintentional, I think some of these gems are missing: Chattaway’s Spatula, Liebig’s Kalipparat, Mary’s Bath, Keck Clip, McLeod’s Vacuum Gauge, Saussure’s Cyanometer, Thiele Tube, Karl Fischer’s Titrator, Michelson’s Interferometer, Penning’s Vacuum Gauge.

  8. Andrea Sella says:

    Hmmm. How did that happened. I’ve add several that were missing but haven’t counted them all to see what else is missing. Thanks, Nick, for spotting this.

  9. Nick Day says:

    My ‘completist’ disease, I’m afraid. I try to keep the full set of these on my Kindle, which is a moving target.

  10. Nick Day says:

    The link to Gahn’s Pipe should be — thanks.

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