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Analytical chemistry and the ‘big' scientific instrumentation revolution

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By a close examination of changes in analytical chemistry between the years 1920 and 1950, I document the case that natural science has undergone and continues to undergo a major revolution. The central feature of this transformation is the rise in importance of scientific instrumentation. Prior to 1920, analytical chemists determined the chemical constitution of some unknown by treating it with a series of known compounds and observing the kind of reactions it underwent. After 1950, analytical chemists determined the chemical constitution of an unknown by using a variety of instruments which allow one to discriminate chemicals in terms of their physical properties. This transformation involved changes in the practice of analytical chemistry. It involved the development of a new family of scientific instrument-making companies, and a new level of capital expenditure necessary to do analytical chemistry. It involved the development of new means to disseminate information about scientific instruments. While I do not document the broader case, these changes have been widespread throughout the natural sciences. It is the rise in the importance of instrumentation which is the key conceptual change in what has been identified as the fourth big scientific revolution.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Philosophy, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C., 29208, U.S.A.

Publication date: May 1, 1993

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