Situating Chemistry, 1760-1840: Database

Developing a database to support the project has been part of the project from the start. The specifications for the database, which focusses around the sites and networks through which chemistry was practiced, were discussed at the workshop in Berlin in February 2014 and in more detail in a workshop in Oxford in May. John Stewart is undertaking the technical development of the database and John Perkins has been co-ordinating its design.


There are several reasons for setting up the database:

  1. To enable members of the network to store and share information in a standardised, but not overly restrictive, format.
  2. To support comparative studies.
  3. To provide members of the network with tools to analyse both their own data and all the rest of the information in the database.
  4. To provide a resource for historians of chemistry working on other periods, historians of other sciences and historians more generally.
  5. To provide a publicly accessible resource for anyone interested in the history of chemistry.
  6. To be able to generate interactive maps, both historical and current, on which the development of chemistry can be charted.

We are designing the database so that it is not specific to our current project nor to the period 1760-1840, and so that it could be readily adapted for use by other historians of chemistry (and alchemy) and historians of other sciences.

General structure

The database is organised around 16 tables. The main ones are those that record historical data, the rest store information on the sources of that data. These sixteen tables are linked by approximately 100 joining tables that constitute the relational functions of the database.

The historical tables are:

  • Sites
  • People
  • Organisations
  • Courses
  • Events
  • Collections
  • Objects
  • Substances
  • Processes & Techniques

The others are:

  • Documents
  • Images
  • Sources
  • Repositories
  • Contributors

Access to the database

In the first instance access to the database will restricted to members of the network but we hope soon after, when we have tested it thoroughly, to make it more widely available to other researchers and then to the public.

Data entry, editing and access

Data will be inputted via online forms. We are also looking at ways in which data that is already in the form of Excel spreadsheets or Word tables/documents can be imported in bulk.

In order to maximise the ease and extent to which the database is searchable most of the entries will have to be in one language. Realistically, and with some reluctance, we think that this should be English. However, it will be possible to add notes and comments to a particular record--a site, a person, an event, etc.— and these can be in any language. It will also be possible to store historical documents that are related to specific records and this can be done in the original language.

All members of the network will be able to enter data and the person who originally created a record will be identified in the system. It will therefore be possible for anyone else who is interested in a particular record to discuss it with the person who originally contributed it. This will be done via email and/or through posing questions, comments or requests for further information on the site. We are developing protocols to allow members of the network to edit records that were originally contributed by someone else. The system will preserve the original information as well as any changes made to it and will record who made the changes.

Searching and analysing the data

It is possible to interrogate the database in a variety of ways and the results are available in the form of reports, tables, charts, diagrams, statistical analyses and maps. The system also enables us to link the data on the physical location of sites to digitised maps, both historical and contemporary, and therefore to produce interactive maps of the historical development of chemistry.

In addition to running queries to produce tables and visuals within the website, all of the data in the tables, and even linked data across multiple tables, can be exported. Text files with comma delineated fields can be generated and exported for use with Excel, word processors, or third-party analytical tools. We can build further exports from user suggestions, and allow users who are comfortable with the software to customize their own exportable files.

What it can do

The database can answer queries such as:

  • Which sites was X involved with? And who collaborated with him or her?
  • How many sites of different types were there in one place over a time period?
  • How many chemistry courses were there in one or several places over a time period?
  • How did the audience for chemistry courses change over time?
  • Where and when was a particular industrial process or piece of apparatus used?

It will be able to generate digital and printed maps of, for example:

  • The chemical topography of Paris, decennially between 1750-1850
  • Comparative chemical topographies of Paris, London, Amsterdam, etc.
  • Chemistry courses & audiences across Europe;
  • Polluting industries in Paris, 1750-1830
  • The geographical origins of visitors to Boulton and Watt in Birmingham

Technical information is a php-based website built from a Cartaro installation of the Drupal content management system. Drupal has one of the largest user bases of any content management system providing extensive testing and support for the core code. The Cartaro installation is a free, open-access package of GIS modules that extend the core functionality of Drupal. Cartaro uses Drupal as an extremely malleable user-interface, a PostGIS database to organize and store our data, OpenLayers to map the data, and GeoServer to interact with the larger GIS data community.

The functionality of our site can be customized through Drupal’s library of over 15,500 modules. We are using a combination of database, bibliographic, and visualization modules to build our tables and provide analytical tools typical of historical network research.