Thursday, June 30, 2011

Equipment excavated at Edinburgh

In advance of a £1m landscaping project at the University of Edinburgh, an archaeological dig (video here) is being conducted in the quadrangle of the Old College. The excavation is uncovering laboratory apparatus and chemicals that belonged to Joseph Black (1728-1799), a renowned and popular chemistry professor. During his prior tenure at the University of Glasgow, where he worked with instrument-maker James Watt, Black discovered what we now know as carbon dioxide gas (he called it "fixed air"). At Edinburgh from 1766, Black lectured to students more than 125 times per year in addition to seeing medical patients. Upon his retirement from the university, his equipment was stored in the basement of the library, which was demolished in 1820. The excavation is yielding numerous items, many still containing samples (mercury, arsenic, and cobalt) and residue from Black's experiments:
  • glass tubes
  • bottle stoppers
  • thermometers
  • storage jars
  • distillation apparatus
  • ceramic containers
  • crucibles
Scholar Dr. Robert Anderson notes, "The age and style of the items and the location in which they were discovered all point towards their having belonged to Joseph Black himself. The discovery is wonderful new evidence of Black's working practices, and includes material which was probably used in his brilliant lecture demonstrations to hundreds of students every year."

1st image, a contemporary photograph of the preserved workshop of
instrument-maker James Watt in his University of Glasgow; 2nd image, an illustration from the late 19th c. of Joseph Black visiting James Watt at his workshop c. 1760 - click to magnify; 3rd image, a mezzotint engraving of Joseph Black from 1800.

1 comment:

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