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A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology by Vincent F. Hendricks, Stig Andur Pedersen, Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen Friis

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Chapter 21

Chemistry and Technology

HELGE S. KRAGH

From a historical perspective, chemistry is the quintessential “mixed” science, as much concerned with making and developing useful materials as with generating scientific knowledge. Practical or technological chemistry was well known in ancient Egypt and continued to be developed in Europe, China and the Islamic world, independently of scientific or philosophical ideas of matter and its transformations. Until the seventeenth century, chemistry (or alchemy) was basically a craft rooted in empirical traditions, yet the absence of guidance from chemical theory did not prevent practical chemists from manufacturing many chemicals and developing new instruments and techniques. During the scientific revolution, the new corpuscular theories of matter, as developed by Pierre Gassendi, Robert Boyle and others, were inspired by practically working chemists and alchemists, but they did not result in new technological applications. Briefly, while scientific chemistry was to some extent technology-driven, progress in practical chemistry was by no means science-driven. To mention but one example, the discovery in 1669 of phosphorus – the first chemical element isolated since antiquity – was made by a Hamburg merchant and alchemist with no knowledge of scientific chemistry. Thirty years later, the discovery had been transformed into a commercial manufacture of phosphorus, a process in which science played no role.

It is, though, problematical ...

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