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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


The science of materials has contributed to changes in our civilization as pervasive as they are profound.

The ways we travel, communicate, build buildings, dress, heal, play sports, read, listen to music, use energy, and care for the young, the old, and the vulnerable have all been shaped and reshaped by our knowledge and mastery of metals, semiconductors, organic and biocompatible materials, gels, plastics, polymers, plasmas, and other substances. But our large-scale historical understanding of materials research is still surprisingly flimsy. We might say of materials research, as common as it is, what Clifford Geertz said of common sense: 'it lies so artlessly before our eyes it is almost impossible to see.'

This project aims to make materials – which we might otherwise overlook for their familiarity – more visible by charting their history. We focus on the tools and practices that have guided materials research. Where did they come from and how were they enrolled in the cause of understanding, manipulating, and fabricating the stuff of the modern world? Laboratories dedicated to studying materials proliferated in the mid- to late twentieth century. They were sponsored by government and military organizations, assembled within universities, and established by industrial firms. And they succeeded in reforming our understanding of matter and changing the material profile of our technological world because a diverse assortment of tools was successfully coordinated within them.

Imagine walking into one of these labs – at Cornell University, or the US Army Research Laboratory, or General Electric – in the 1970s or 1980s and looking around. You are surrounded by a wide assortment of tools. Some – glass flasks and beakers, thermometers, microscopes – have been shaped by centuries of development and modification. Others, particularly those taking advantage of various scattering and diffraction phenomena, are recent developments. Still others are so unassuming that you might not register them as tools at all, from the trade catalogues that researchers use to peruse new prefabricated materials or equipment, all the way up to the building itself, which was designed to instrumentalize the interactions of the researchers within it. This project tells their stories.