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The Glass Menagerie: Cataloguing chemical glassware

As we mark the UN International Year of Glass, discover more about a volunteer-led project to catalogue thousands of pieces of glassware in our collection.

Historically, scientific glassware has been deemed ephemeral by laboratories; it very rarely survives given its fragility, despite being one of the essential pieces of equipment in the development of chemistry. In March 2019, a volunteer-led project began to study and catalogue nearly 1600 pieces of previously overlooked chemical glassware in the Science Museum Group Collection dating from the 1800s to the 1980s.

Armed with only one photograph of each piece and a few boxes of old manufacturers’ trade catalogues, our team of four volunteers embarked on this chemical cataloguing challenge.

As the project grew, more and more glassware was found on the shelves of the Blythe House object store, bringing the total to nearly 2200 individual objects. You can now view these objects on our online collection. This project is part of an ambitious project to make the Science Museum Group’s vast, world-class collection open and accessible to all.

All chemists by training, our Cataloguing Volunteers Marina Haywood, Richard Todd, Silvia Bardoni and Martin Howard are still persevering at this mammoth undertaking. They tell us about the experience.

Straight form absorption tube (c) Science Museum Group

What attracted you to the project?

Marina: I have an interest in the history of science and although it’s daunting that we need to catalogue some 2000 objects, it is hugely (and strangely) satisfying to be involved in the project which aims to record and digitise a somewhat neglected, yet fascinating, area of the chemical collection for future generations.

Richard: I appreciated the opportunity to work with the Science Museum Group on a project that related to my professional experience.

Silvia: I was attracted by the success of the Science Museum Group in presenting and rediscovering the past.

Martin: I saw the advertisement for the role only by chance as I had signed up to hear of volunteer opportunities on behalf of my son. That there would be a small project-team was a definite attraction as I imagined this was going to be like being back at work with only the good bits: enthusiastic people, interesting project, enjoyable social interactions. I was not disappointed.

When did your interest in chemical glassware begin?

Marina: I have had a weird fascination with chemical glassware ever since chemistry at school and university. We were each assigned a magical cupboard containing a standard set of glassware beneath our own little area of bench space!

Richard: If I’m honest, it really began with the start of this project!

Silvia: When I was a student, my university did not have many resources and finding the right piece of glassware for the experiments was a struggle so I had my favourite and lucky pieces. I found it fascinating that we could wash them with Aqua regia and use them again and again. I always thought of all the reactions and all the students before me that had used that same glassware.

Martin: In primary school, our teacher put a nail into a solution of copper sulphate and, as if by magic, the nail was quickly covered by copper. It is a beautiful twist of fate that that first chemical reaction (copper plating) is basic electrochemistry – the field I found myself working in when I joined Duracell Batteries, where I spent a very happy and productive 36 years!

Three necked flask (c) Science Museum Group

What in your opinion is special about chemical glassware?

Marina: Some pieces are surprisingly beautiful as well as practical.

Richard: I am intrigued by the bespoke handmade glassware. The thought that they were designed for a specific chemistry experiment that had quite possibly not been performed before is fascinating.

Silvia: They are beautiful objects with incredible qualities. They are so fragile and yet can withstand high temperatures and extreme conditions. They remind me of cartoon superheroes.

Martin: Glassware reflects the creativity and ingenuity of both the chemists who used them and the designers who created what the chemist wanted.

Flat bottomed round flask with long neck and lip (c) Science Museum Group

What has been the most surprising thing you have found during the project?

Marina: I was surprised by the sheer joy of delving into the glassware manufacturers’ chemical catalogues from the 1800s and 1900s. Some of them are amazing publications and are almost chemistry textbooks!

Richard: I did not realise that there were comprehensive chemical glassware (and general scientific equipment) catalogues dating back to the 19th century.

Silvia: I was most surprised by the pleasure of looking at illustrations of old scientific apparatus!

Martin: I found out quite quickly how little I knew about chemical glassware! It is fascinating to leaf through old catalogues to see how much analytical chemistry relied upon glassware for testing.

Do you have a favourite piece among the 2000?

Marina: Not one, but all the glassware where we have managed to identify the supplier – for one piece, for example, we were able to quote the page and item number from a catalogue dated 1894. This does not happen very often!

Richard: I like the simple objects possessing an interesting logo/trademark that require a lot of investigation to ascertain their origins.

Silvia: All of the glass retorts were extremely fascinating as their shape – a bulb with a long curved spout – transports us to the beginning of chemistry and beyond. All the way back to the time of alchemy.

Martin: I came across a couple of early 20th century graduated volumetric flasks which were individually verified by The Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in Charlottenburg, Germany. That each object can be traced back to this famous testing laboratory provides a lead to finding out where these flasks were used – in their life before the collection.

Find out more about volunteering with the Science Museum Group.