Take a Road Trip Through Chemistry History

Chemistry Road Trip

Summer is made for road trips. But maybe you’ve already had your fill of trips to national monuments or roadside tourist traps. Why not pay a visit to some of the most important sites in chemistry history? The ACS National Historic Chemical Landmarks program honors seminal achievements in chemistry by commemorating the places where chemists made these momentous discoveries. Just for fun, here are four fantasy road trips you could take through different U.S. regions. But don’t despair if a route doesn’t pass by your house. The program recognizes landmarks throughout the U.S. and in other countries as well. Take a look and start packing!

CALIFORNIA – 462 miles

  1. Chlorofluorocarbons and Ozone Depletion (Irvine, California)

Our California route starts off just south of Los Angeles. At the University of California, Irvine, where you’ll find a plaque celebrating F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina’s discovery of chlorofluorocarbons and their effect on ozone. Shortly after their discovery, the National Academy of Science issued a warning about the potential impact of CFCs on the environment. Their work eventually led to an international agreement that phased out CFC production.

  1. Development of the Beckman pH Meter (Pasadena, California)

Our next stop is one hour north, at the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. In 1934, Arnold Beckman, an analytical chemistry professor here, was asked to create a device that coould measure the acidity of citrus by Sunkist. Litmus paper was cheaply available at the time, but the added preservative sulfur dioxide in citrus juice bleached the litmus. Working in a rented garage after hours, Beckman finally created the Beckman Glass Electrode pH Meter, a device suitable for practically any substance.

  1. NMR and MRI: Applications in Chemistry and Medicine (Santa Clara, California)

Pack extra snacks because our next stop is five hours away! Agilent Technologies in Santa Clara is home to the commemoration of the first commercially successful NMR instrument, the Varian A-60. The two brothers, Russel and Sigurd Varian, started Varian Associates in Palo Alto to manufacturer scientific instruments. They began developing NMR as they worked with Stanford scientists in the area since NMR allowed the lab to determine the structure of a molecule within hours as opposed to the months it used to take.

  1. Commercialization of Radiation Chemistry (Redwood City, California)

At Redwood City, an hour north, we come to our next landmark. The Raychem Corporation, now called TE Connectivity, was the first company to apply radiation chemistry commercially. The field began in the late 1890s with the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity. By the 1930s, particle accelerators were being used to examine the effects of radiation on a variety of substances. World War II accelerated nuclear research through reactors and nuclear weapons.

After the war, Paul Cook, a chemical engineer, founded Raychem Corporation in 1957 after researching radiation in commercial applications. Their first product was radiation cross-linked polymer insulation for military and aerospace application.

  1. Discovery of Transuranium Elements at Berkeley Lab (Berkeley, California)

Continuing north, we arrive at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The landmark here is dedicated to the discovery of transuranium elements. Beginning in the mid-1930s, several nuclear scientists set out to synthesize new elements not found in nature. Between 1940 and 1974, researchers from the lab were able to synthesize multiple elements with an atomic number higher than uranium’s 92. Many of these discoveries were made under the leadership of Glenn Seaborg, who is the only person to both serve as President of the ACS and have an element named after him: Seaborgium.

  1. Frozen Foods Research: Time-Temperature Tolerance Studies (Albany, California)

Our final stop is just 20 minutes away, at the United States Department of Agriculture in Albany, California. The Western Regional Research Center (WRRC), one of the department’s laboratories, became home to frozen food research shortly after World War II. Their mission was to increase the market for farm products, while improving the frozen food industry.

In 1957, the WRRC published their findings in Food Technology with the title “The Time-Temperature Tolerance of Frozen Foods.” The study examined fish fingers, beef burgers, green peas, green beans and potato chips stored at temperatures of -8 degrees C and -12 degrees C.

The study spurred the growth of the refrigeration industry, with new “zero-degree” freezers becoming available for home use, as well as refrigerated rail cars. Today, one-fourth of all U.S. exports are frozen foods.

MIDWEST – 708 miles

  1. The Columbia Dry Cell Battery (St. Louis, Missouri)

Our Midwest trip begins in St. Louis, at the Energizer Holdings, Inc. corporate headquarters with a landmark in battery development. The first battery can be traced back to the 1790s when Alessandro Volta invented the “voltaic pile,” which consisted of stacked disks of zinc and silver. A major advancement came again in 1866 when Georges Leclanche developed the first wet cell battery.

The National Carbon Company, the predecessor to the Energizer Battery Company, started marketing the Leclanche wet cells in 1894. During this time, E.M. Jewett, under the direction of George Little, began experimenting with lighter and more portable dry cell batteries. He finally developed a 1.5 volt, six-inch, cylindrical dry cell that was ready for consumer use, a first for battery technology.

  1. Percy L. Julian and the Synthesis of Physostigmine (Greencastle, Indiana)

Three hours northeast, just outside of Indianapolis, we reach our next destination, DePauw University. DePauw is the site of the Minshall Laboratory, where Percy L. Julian first synthesized physostigmine. Julian faced challenges during his career that many scientists did not. He was the grandson of slaves and the son of a railway clerk. Born in 1899, Julian grew up in the time of racist Jim Crow laws. No public schools existed for African-Americans past the 8th grade, so Julian attended the Lincoln Normal School where he graduated ill-prepared for college.

Julian went on to graduate first in his class at DePauw University in chemistry in 1920 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. But even with his academic record, Julian was denied fellowships and graduate school admission. He continued his work in chemistry at predominantly black universities as a faculty member. An opportunity finally came from overseas, where he earned his doctorate with Ernst Spath at the University of Vienna.

Julian was incredibly successful despite the racial challenges he faced. He went on to earn over 130 chemical patents and became the first black chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. The commemoration at DePauw University recognizes Julian’s research leading to a treatment for glaucoma, in which the drug physostigmine was successfully synthesized.

  1. Noyes Laboratory at the University of Illinois (Urbana, Illinois)

The next stop is at the Noyes Lab, two hours northwest. The Noyes lab is one of the most important laboratories in the U.S., and housed research for ten Nobel Prize winners, twenty-three American Chemical Society presidents, and twelve winners of the Priestley Medal. The Noyes Lab was the site of vast amounts of groundbreaking research. It was where NMR spectroscopy was developed for chemists, the location of Fourier-transform microwave spectrometry development, and where Roger Adams identified the active ingredients of marijuana, among other important discoveries.

  1. Thomas Edison, Chemist (Greenfield Village, Michigan)

Our journey ends in Greenfield Village, a few miles outside of Detroit, Michigan. A plaque at The Henry Ford, a local museum, commemorates Thomas Edison’s interest in chemistry. Before he became a household name, Edison grew up in the Port Huron area of Michigan. Edison had a home laboratory where he collected and experimented with different chemicals. But where were his chemical contributions? In his inventions, of course! He couldn’t have invented the light bulb without creating a filament, and he had to develop wax cylinders and polymers for his phonograph. Edison also went on to suggest ways to create cement suitable for building material.

OHIO AND PENNSYLVANIA – 413 miles

  1. Production of Aluminum: The Hall-Héroult Process (Oberlin, Ohio)

This road trip begins in Oberlin, Ohio, at Oberlin College, where Charles Martin Hall attended college at age 16. Hall was one of the pioneers of the aluminum industry in North America. Aluminum is the most common metal in Earth’s crust but it never occurs in its metallic form naturally, and it was difficult to isolate. Before 1886, it was considered a semiprecious metal and was as valuable as silver. Frank Fanning Jewett, one of Hall’s chemistry professors, told his class of the fortune that awaited the person who could obtain aluminum from its oxides as he displayed his small aluminum sample. Hall was determined to be that person.He worked with Jewett on trying to find a reduction technique, but chemical methods proved fruitless. The pair then used electric current to see if they could get the reducing conditions required. To do this, they assembled Bunsen Grove cells with about one pound of zinc to create an ounce of aluminum. Even after graduation, Hall continued to perfect his technique, working in his family’s woodshed. Hall eventually discovered the Hall Process, in which aluminum oxide is dissolved in molten cryolite.

  1. The Columbia Dry Cell Battery (Cleveland, Ohio)

The next stop is at the Energizer Global Technology Center in Cleveland, a landmark in battery development. The first battery can be traced back to the 1790s when Alessandro Volta invented the “voltaic pile,” which consisted of stacked disks of zinc and silver. A major advancement came again in 1866 when Georges Leclanche developed the first wet cell battery.

The National Carbon Company, the predecessor to the Energizer Battery Company, started marketing the Leclanche wet cells in 1894. During this time, E.M. Jewett, under the direction of George Little, began experimenting with lighter and more portable dry cell batteries. He finally developed a 1.5 volt, six-inch, cylindrical dry cell that was ready for consumer use, a first for battery technology.

  1. U.S. Synthetic Rubber Program (Akron, Ohio)

Our third stop takes us 50 miles southeast to The University of Akron, the birthplace of synthetic rubber. Rubber initially came from the latex of the rubber trees in South America, where indigenous people used it. In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered a way to cure the natural rubber into a pliable, waterproof, and moldable rubber. Soon after, rubber became a booming industry. By the 1910s, Asian rubber plantations were sprouted from Amazon Basin seeds to keep up with demand. This eventually displaced the South American rubber as the primary supplier for rubber. World War II eventually caused the U.S. to lose its primary supplier, and a shortage ensued. The shortage didn’t just affect domestic goods like gloves and raincoats; rubber was also used in creating war machines. A military plane required half a ton of rubber. Tanks required one ton, and a battleship needed a whopping 75 tons. Tires were necessary on light vehicles as well. The U.S. government realized that it would need to replace natural rubber with a viable synthetic quickly and on a grand scale to win the war. With the help of the rubber companies, the U.S. was able to create a synthetic rubber in under 18 months. In 1940, Ray P. Dinsmore of Goodyear patented the synthetic rubber substitute “Chemigum” in Akron, Ohio.

  1. Alcoa Corporate Center (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Charles Martin Hall, star of our first stop, eventually raised enough capital to commercialize his aluminum production method, and founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, later renamed Aluminum Company of America, then shortened to Alcoa.

  1. Legacy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Our fifth landmark celebrates the early seeds of the green chemistry movement, sown by Rachel Carson. Carson started studying as a writer at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), but changed majors to biology and graduated with honors. Before Carson began writing her book, Silent Spring, she was employed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a field scientist and writer. There she became intrigued by the relationship between humans and the natural world, and how the scientific inventions of World War II impacted them. One such invention was dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. It was an effective pesticide for preventing the spread of diseases, like typhoid and malaria, transmitted by insects. In Silent Spring, Carson described the chemical sprayings, industrial chemicals, and chemicals used in food in ecological terms. Sure, these chemicals killed insects, but it had a ripple effect on the food chain. Birds that ate the dead insects also died. If a particular chemical didn’t kill an animal, it could be stored in the animal’s fat cells where it could cause medical problems, or be passed on to their young. Carson asked that these chemicals be studied and biological alternatives researched. Her book inspired people to think of humans as part of nature, not the center of it.

  1. Joseph Priestley and the Discovery of Oxygen (Northumberland, Pennsylvania)

The final leg of the journey takes us to the Joseph Priestley House. Priestley always fought against convention; he supported the American and French revolutions and was notorious for his unorthodox views on religion. So notorious, in fact, that he had to flee his home in England and settle in Northumberland.Priestley was very productive. He identified a dozen key chemical compounds, invented carbonated water, and the rubber eraser, and wrote a paper on electricity. But he is remembered as the man who discovered oxygen. He discovered that when he placed a flame in a jar with a mouse, the match would go out and the mouse would die. But, when a plant was added, the mouse would continue to breathe, and the flame would stay lit. In 1774, he used a glass lens to focus sunlight on a mercuric oxide in an inverted glass container placed in a pool of mercury. The gas emitted was able to keep the mouse alive for four times as long as a similar amount of room air.After his series of experiments, he noted that regular air is not a single substance, but a mixture of gases, including a flammable, colorless, odorless gas later named oxygen.

EAST COAST – 682 miles

  1. NMR and MRI: Applications in Chemistry and Medicine (Stony Brook, New York)

Our journey begins on Long Island at Stony Brook University, where a plaque commemorates Paul Lauterbur’s discovery of MRI. Paul Lauterbur, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, began researching ways to get spatial information out of an NMR. He eventually realized he could turn the NMR inside out to use the magnetic field gradients to turn spatial information into NMR signals. Peter Mansfield, a British physicist, saw Lauterbur’s work and devised a way to turn these NMR signals into an image, thus creating the MRI, now a common tool in medical diagnosis. For their work, Lauterbur and Mansfield were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003.

  1. Nucleic Acid and Protein Research at Rockefeller University (New York City, New York)

The second stop on our trip is at Rockefeller University. Most of the research here centered around the two nucleic acids RNA and DNA.British medical researcher, Fred Griffith, joined Rockefeller in 1913. In his research, he injected a nonvirulent strain of pneumococci into mice along with dead virulent cells. The mice died and live virulent cells were found in their lungs. This implied that DNA was the lone carrier of genetic properties.

John H. Northrop joined Rockefeller in 1916 after serving in the Chemical Warfare Service during WWI. He studied the digestive enzymes, pepsin and trypsin, and the conditions that affected their reactions. He went on to crystalize pepsin and subjected it to rigorous testing to prove that it is, in fact, a protein. He went on to show that bacteriophages, then thought to be living organisms, were viruses that could be isolated as chemical substances. In 1935, Wendell Stanley was able to determine that a virus’s protein had all of the attributes to be considered a pure chemical compound as if it were one giant molecule.

The plaque at Rockefeller University commemorates a century of molecular science that advanced the world’s understanding of nucleic acids and proteins.

  1. Thomas Edison, Chemist (Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey or Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park in Edison, New Jersey)

Just miles outside of New York City, a plaque at Thomas Edison National Historical Park commemorates Thomas Edison’s chemistry. Before he became a household name, Edison grew up in the Port Huron area of Michigan. He was mainly homeschooled and developed a particular interest in chemistry. Edison had a home laboratory where he collected and experimented with different chemicals. But where were his chemical contributions? In his inventions, of course! He couldn’t have invented the light bulb without creating a filament, and he had to develop wax cylinders and polymers for his phonograph. Edison also went on to suggest ways to create cement suitable for building material.

  1. Deciphering the Genetic Code (Bethesda, Maryland)

At this stop, we jump back into DNA at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Marshall Nirenberg joined the NIH in 1959 as a research biochemist. His goal was to determine if it was RNA or DNA that was the template for protein synthesis.In 1961, he eventually found that messenger RNA (mRNA) transcribes data from DNA to direct the assembly of amino acids into complex proteins. In 1968, Nirenberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the genome. The plaque at NIH commemorates Nirenberg and his lab partner, Heinrich Matthaei, for cracking the DNA code.

  1. Wallace Carothers and the Development of Nylon (Dupont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware, or Invista in Seaford, Delaware)

Our fifth landmark commemorates the development of nylon, a result of polymer research at DuPont. Wallace Carothers, an organic chemist, began researching the structure and synthesis of polymers. He realized long molecules could be strung together using organic compounds with a reactive functional group at the end of them. Carothers and a small group of young chemists reacted dibasic groups with diols to cause esterification that created long chain molecules, called polyesters.His research led him to create superpolymers which could be extruded into a silk-like fiber. The first manufacturing plant created to engineer these fibers was DuPont’s Seaford plant in Delaware and, in September 1938, nylon was successfully patented.

  1. Discovery of Camptothecin and Taxol® (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina)

Our final stop is at the Research Triangle Institute, where a plaque commemorates the discovery of two anticancer agents: Taxol®  and camptothecin.Monroe Wall began screening plants for the potential to replace products like rubber. Jonathan Hartwell, from the Cancer Chemotherapy National Service Center, convinced Wall on a visit to send plant extracts to the National Cancer Center for antitumor testing. A year later, Wall learned that the Camptotheca acuminata extract showed anticancer potential. In 1960, Wall joined the Research Triangle Institute and began testing C. acuminata with an organic chemist, Mansukh Wani. They were able to isolate a compound they called camptothecin as the antitumor component of the plant extract. Later, Wall and Wani worked on the bark of the yew tree, called Taxus brevifolia. The pair was able to isolate a substance they called Taxol® as the anticancer component.

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