Chiara Ceci finds an exhibition small but perfectly formed.
In the early 19th century, chemistry played a fundamental role in raising the social profile of sciences. This is well portrayed in a new exhibition  at the Royal Society.
Romantic chemistry tells the stories of the discoveries of some unusual elements by Fellows of the Society, presenting a variety of precious documents and artefacts from its unique collection.
The exhibition originates from the story of one of these unusual elements: niobium, which was the first of the 51 new elements (more than half of the stable elements in the periodic table!) to be discovered during the 19th century.
Charles Hatchett discovered niobium, which he named colombium, in a mineral sample that had been sent to the Royal Society from America by another Fellow, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop. The mineral, labelled columbite, had been transferred to the British Museumin the late eighteenth century, and lay forgotten until 1801 when Hatchett analysed it and found the new metal.
Today, most niobium is mined in Brazil. It is used for the production of high-temperature-resistant alloys and special stainless steels. Small amounts of niobium impart greater strength to other metals. Parts of the Apollo spacecraft command module were made from its alloys.
The exhibition is sponsored by the world’s leading producer of nobium, the Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM). Annually they recognise and celebrate its importance by sponsoring the Charles Hatchett Award for the best publication on the science and technology of nobium. The award itself is a minted medal of pure niobium, which is on display along with the historical documents.
In the other cases of this small but well-curated exhibition, we discover the stories of many other elements. Some, like gold and copper, were known in ancient times.
It was not until 1669 that the German alchemist Hennig Brand observed phosphorus, the first element in modern history to be discovered by chemical means. He manufactured phosphorus from human urine, as did the ‘father of chemistry’ Robert Boyle, whose method of making phosphorus is wonderfully explained in the 1680 manuscript on display.
The privilege of reading the original manuscripts that scientists sent to the Royal Society to be published in the Philosophical Transactions is usually reserved to scholars, but this exhibition extends it to all those who want to visit.
Henry Cavendish’s original paper (1766) on the discovery of hydrogen is on display, as is a paper on Experiments on magnetic sand found in Cornwall by William Gregor. This describes his discovery of titanium (which he first called manaccanite). There is also William Hyde Wollaston’s 1804 paper On a new metal found in Platina announcing the discovery of rhodium. It is displayed next to the original rolled sheets of palladium that he discovered in 1803, and the 1824 certificate of his election to theAmericanAcademy signed by John Quincy Adams, soon to be elected as the 6th President of theUnited States.
In this very exciting era for chemistry, one of the most popular characters was Humphrey Davy. This exhibition shows us more about his scientific work and the story behind his election as President of the Royal Society. Considered lowly and dandyish by some of the Fellows, Davy managed to be elected thanks to his scientific reputation.
Romantic chemistry gives original and documented insights into the history of chemistry. Letters and documents are a window through which we can look back at the lives of some great scientists. Living the excitement of their discoveries, we also discover that it is thanks to prolific lecturers like Davy and his young assistant – Michael Faraday – that chemistry made the public enthusiastic about science.
The exhibition is free and is open until 14 June from Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm, at 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG.