Classic kit: Griffin's beaker
John Joseph Griffin
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Hermann Kolbe - whose surname resembles the word for flask in German - was a highly influential, if notoriously prickly, organic chemist. Earlier still, the seventeenth century physician and chymist Johann Becher - 'Becherglas' is a beaker in German - was the father of the phlogiston theory that would be developed by Georg Stahl. Was young Becher inspired by beakers? He would, no doubt, have used them; the word itself can be derived back through Germanic roots to the Greek word ambikos for a drinking cup. Upturned by Greek alchemists it became a still - hence the Arab word al-ambic; while the Latin word bicarium, in turn gives us the Italian word bicchiere (a drinking glass) and the French pichet (a jug or pitcher). Today in many glassware catalogues, the plain glass container is often called the Griffin beaker.
John Joseph Griffin was born in Shoreditch in London, UK, the area then a far cry from the trendy creative hotspot it is today. His father was a bookseller and publisher who, at some point in John Joseph's youth, moved the family to Glasgow where his business prospered. Nothing is known of JJ's early years, but when he finished school he went to one of the top scientific establishments of the day, Glasgow's Andersonian Institution. Griffin developed a real passion for chemistry. Even after his graduation, while working in his father's business, he became obsessed with the idea of educating the common working man in the ways of science generally, and chemistry in particular.
In 1823 he published his Chemical recreations. The small volume - printed in octavo format, smaller than a modern paperback - sold out immediately and ran to many editions throughout the 19th century. Its approach was unique - this was not a teacher writing for students, but a more experienced student helping his fellows along the way. The tone is unfailingly enthusiastic and positive, prizing experiment and experience above theory. Above all, Griffin suggested simple ways of adapting or obtaining cheap starting materials and apparatus, pointing out simple short cuts. Among its many readers was the neuropsychiatrist Oliver Sachs, who received a copy from his uncle 'Tungsten', a gift that would mould his interest in experiment and observation.
The success of his book earned Griffin the respect of his peers and he was active in reviving the Glasgow Philosophical Society. He also travelled in Europe, spending a short period in Leopold Gmelin's lab in Heidelberg, Germany, around 1832. Although without an academic position, he published a number of polemical academic works, including a vitriolic Romance of chemistry , included in the seventh edition of the Recreations , which presented a new, and as he saw it, improved systematic nomenclature. Alum (hydrated potassium aluminium sulfate), for example, would become Kalialintriasulintetraoxinocta Aquindodeca . He reserved particular scorn for the notation of the great Swedish systematiser and analyst Jöns-Jakob Berzelius, and felt it necessary to send a copy of his book to the great man. Nonplussed, Berzelius ignored it.
With a name like Beaker, perhaps he was destined to become Honeydew's assistant
And beakers, whether Griffin's or Berzelius's, remain one of the first pieces of glassware we learn the name of. Would life be any different if it were called something different? Would that which we call a beaker by any other name smell as sweet?
Andrea Sella teaches Chemistry at University College London, UK
An online version of Chemical recreations, including Romance of chemistry can be found by clicking the link below.
I am, once again, indebted to Bill Brock for valuable insights.
An online version of Chemical recreations
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