I found myself walking by the Fashion Institute of Technology on a very warm February day last week. Even for me fashion and design students are easy to spot, but three sported solid mauve outfits which triggered a few neurons.
If you've had organic chemistry, you've probably heard about mauveine. William Perkins had been challenged by his professor to do something useful - namely synthesize quinine. There were failures. In one the teenager noticed some purple bits of something when he washed the gunky blackish failure with alcohol. He played around with it and found it to be an excellent dye. Soon the first synthetic chemical dye was patented and entered volume production. Mauveine was everywhere. England's emerging middle class could afford color and fashion changed to reflect the new choices.
Before the 1800s most of what we'd call science was done was done by solitary or small groups of usually wealthy enthusiasts. In the early 1800s Germany chemistry in the support of consumer goods emerged becoming a big thing by mid century and spreading to England and France. The product was any number of chemical "improvements" on hard to get or low quality natural products - food products like beef extract, dyes, paints, and so on. It became clear that a functioning industrial laboratory using the scientific method could be profitable - very profitable.
Around the time of the American Civil War England began to worry about it's place in innovation. The 1851 Exposition was something of a triumph, but progress since then had slowed with Germany and France catching up and even surpassing them in many areas. Something had to be done and the trigger was telegraphy.
First used as a signaling mechanism for railroads, telegraphy rapidly spread as business recognized its value as a general communication tool. A transatlantic cable was a major goal in the 1850s, but early attempts failed with great financial losses. Physicists identified the problem - there was enough of a basic understanding of signal transmission, but they didn't know how to scale it properly. Also the people designing and building the cables had only the sketchiest notion of signal transmission and were making design decisions that were known to be bad. The cure was to study the problem in a laboratory setting. There it was possible to strip the problem down to its bare essentials and experiment at a practical scale away from the messiness of real world conditions. It was possible to watch how it behaved varying one variable at a time. A deeper understanding emerged with results that could be carried back into the real world where, mirabile dictu, transcontinental telegraphy finally worked. More than a few businessmen profited handsomely not so much from the cable, but from the more agile business it enabled.
As scientists and engineers were learning about telegraphy in these university labs, a sizable group of young men (sadly women were rare) were being training. Kings College and University College were major centers, but Cambridge resisted. The maths department believed the function of a university was teaching subservience to your tutor. An experimentalist is all about rebellion. You were to take your tutor's word.
Remember England worrying about it's place in science and innovation? A Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science was established. It was chaired by William Cavendish Duke of Devonshire, a Cambridge trained mathematician who had become a successful businessman. Cavendish pushed a radical solution. Science education was to be made compulsory in secondary schools, new laboratories would be built using public rather than private money and laboratory science would take a seat advising public policy. It was implemented in the mid 1870s with a scientific curriculum established in secondary schools along with professorships in science at the universities. Students going to Cambridge began to demand laboratory science courses and degrees. Resistance was futile.
About a decade earlier Maxwell had created the first unification of physical forces and established field theory as way to look at Nature. Enthusiastic about Nature in general, he worked on color vision among dozens of other things.1 He had a belief that someone intensely curious was better suited for physics than someone with pedigree. Anyone was welcome, sadly as long as they were male - he had trouble being around women, and the natural sciences took off at the school. To say it was a success would be understatement in the extreme.
In under a hundred years the way science was done had changed dramatically. Originally it was accessible to untrained people who had an interest in the Natural world. It was small and poorly organized. It had become a sport where rigorous training - six to eight years of post secondary education at a minimum - was necessary. Laboratories had groups of scientists and centralized apparatus. A class of technician who knew the apparatus deeply emerged. Serendipitous communication became common and it was relatively easy to perform experiments with apparatus that was closely matched to what you wanted to do. The flexibility was astonishing.
Having this specialized space was of central importance. A great example is the X-ray. J.J. Thomson of Cambridge heard about the German discovery and within two weeks he was able to create his own X-rays and, building on existing work he had done on charged gases, managed to discover the electron.
The labs had directors with a vision for where the future might lurk, a community of local experts with a mix of skills, the flexibility to change direction quickly and a community of support staff who build, run and extend the experimental apparatus.
These groups created the underpinnings for most of the technology we know today. I would claim the emergence of these great university and later government and a few pure research laboratories was one of the defining developments of the 19th century.
Sometimes discoveries takes decades to gel or unite with other discoveries before they make the leap into technology, sometimes it is very rapid and often it is the stuff of knowledge and beauty. There is little way of knowing this upfront. Unfortunately the move to make research more productive is shifting its focus from pure to applied research. Both are important, but both are essential.
There has been a cost. Science developed it's own language. It became so specialized that it took expertise to communicate results to the public. Something was lost. People are working on re-establishing communication. Unfortunately that hasn't been very effective - at least in the US.
1 It was tempting to title this post something like a color purple, but purple isn't a color in the sense of colors having a certain wavelength. Rather it is an artifact of your mind created by two or more wavelengths striking your eyes,
I'm still working on non-dairy "ice cream". This is almost there and I can recommend it as a starting point.
Creamless Banana Ice Cream
° 5 ripe bananas -- like almost oozing ripe
° 2 tsp cinnamon
° 1/2 cup coconut milk (full fat)
° 1-1/2 cup almond milk
° 1 tsp vanilla extract
° 1/2 cup crushed chocolate.. anywhere from bitter to semisweet depending on your taste
° some maple syrup or brown sugar .. optional
° oven to about 350° F
° cut bananas into 1 inch pieces and put them on a baking sheet (you may want to line it)
° sprinkle cinnamon over the bananas, turn at about 15 minutes and go until they are brown and soft - about a half hour
° throw the bananas and all remaining ingredients except the chocolate into a blender or use an immersion blender.
° add cinnamon or a bit of maple syrup if not flavored or sweet enough
° stir in chocolate bits
° chill in the fridge
° churn freeze with an ice cream machine