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A Visual Approach to 19th Century Chemistry

Occasionally science librarians will stumble upon something that makes us let out a whoop of excitement. While reviewing a rare book catalogue an illustrated plate titled “Chemistry of Combustion and Illumination; Structure of Flame” published in Chemical Atlas; or, the Chemistry of Familiar Objects: Exhibiting the General Principles of the Science in a Series of Beautifully Colored Diagrams, and Accompanied by Explanatory Essays, Embracing the Latest Views of the Subjects Illustrated, by Edward L. Youmans (1857) caught my eye.

Putting aside the verbose title of the tome, the eye-catching illustration motivated me to pull the Library’s copy from the book stacks to find what other visual chemistry treasures it included.

Structure of a flame.

Plate XI. Chemistry of Combustion and Illumination; Structure of Flame. Youmans’ Chemical Atlas. 1857.

In the introduction, Youmans describes chemistry as benefitting from illustrations as much as astronomy, geography, mathematics, and other subjects to aid in the understanding of difficult concepts. He remarks:

Those facts and principles which it is most important to understand, are thus brought out from the vague and shadowy region of abstract conception, and presented in all the exactness of reality to the most impressible of our senses.

The book itself is divided into sixteen parts that range from the basics such as atomic theory to more complex subjects such as geochemistry, some of which contain gorgeously rendered illustrations:

Section of the earth's crust showing mineral composition.

Plate IV. Chemistry of Geology. Ideal section of the earth’s crust, and composition of the minerals which chiefly compose it. Youmans’ Chemical Atlas. 1857.

In addition to the discussion on chemistry behind Plate XI, also covered is the process of fermentation as it applies to sugar, illustrated using grape sugar and its breakdown into carbonic acid, hydrogen, and butyric acid; and a chapter on the chemistry of solar light in which Youmans waxes poetic before going into detail on the luminous, thermal, and chemical properties of solar radiation.

That high power which originates organization, which gathers dead matter into living structures, and calls into existence all the beauties and glories of the earth, whence is it? It is not of our world; it is super-terrestrial; it comes from the great central body of our planetary system, the SUN.

There is a digitized version of this book that can be found via HathiTrust, however the black and white scans on the screen do not capture the vibrant colors and depth of the illustrations, so I recommend viewing it in person if you are able. Please stop by the Library of Congress to view our copy in the Science & Business Reading Room!

To find more gems in the Library’s collections that are staff favorites, browse through our other Favorites from the Fifth Floor posts!

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