Nominally Rational: Systematic Nomenclature and the Structure of Organic Chemistry, 1889-1940

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This dissertation addresses the emergence of an approach to naming chemical compounds that became a pivotal instrument for the representation of chemicals, the development of the information technologies of chemistry, and the national and international organization of chemists. At the turn of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of synthetic compounds were transforming chemistry and commerce. European and American chemists sought to impose order on their field and its objects of inquiry by making rules for naming these chemicals—or rather, rules for converting chemical diagrams into names.

Chapters 1 and 2 recount the foundations of this approach to chemical nomenclature and its first articulation at the 1892 Congress for the Reform of Nomenclature in Geneva. The Alsatian chemist Charles Friedel convened this congress to advance the interests of the French within European chemistry and of Friedel’s faction within Parisian science; congress delegates designed rules of nomenclature specifically and exclusively for use in chemical indexes. But names would not stay where they were put. Chapters 3 and 4 reconstruct how chemists throughout Europe and America adopted and adapted Geneva names in laboratories, classrooms, and patent offices, while index-makers avoided them. Instead, chemical editors created their own nomenclature schemes not only for but through the work of compilation. As Chapter 5 shows, these chemical reference works became a vital part of the political and intellectual landscape of chemistry. Indeed, during World War I, Entente chemists singled out the authoritative German reference literature as the Teutonic trick behind that nation’s dominance of chemical science and industry. Chapter 6 addresses how, after the war’s end, reformers who sought to situate science within a new international order took up nomenclature less as a problem of organizing chemicals than as an opportunity to organize chemists. They resolved fundamental conflicts over both how chemicals should be named and who should get to decide by vesting authority in a cadre of technical experts. Nomenclature debates receded to irrelevance for the vast majority of chemists, even as systematic names gave form to the epistemic shifts and transformations of the material world effected by twentieth-century chemistry.