The Limits of Matter

Chemistry, Mining, and Enlightenment

Hjalmar Fors

The Limits of Matter
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Hjalmar Fors

248 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2014
Cloth $40.00 ISBN: 9780226194998 Will Publish December 2014
E-book $32.00 ISBN: 9780226195049 Will Publish December 2014
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Europeans raised a number of questions about the nature of reality and found their answers to be different from those that had satisfied their forebears. They discounted tales of witches, trolls, magic, and miraculous transformations and instead began looking elsewhere to explain the world around them. In The Limits of Matter, Hjalmar Fors investigates how conceptions of matter changed during the Enlightenment and pins this important change in European culture to the formation of the modern discipline of chemistry.
Fors reveals how, early in the eighteenth century, chemists began to view metals no longer as the ingredients for “chrysopoeia”—or gold making—but as elemental substances, or the basic building blocks of matter. At the center of this emerging idea, argues Fors, was the Bureau of Mines of the Swedish State, which saw the practical and profitable potential of these materials in the economies of mining and smelting.

By studying the chemists at the Swedish Bureau of Mines and their networks, and integrating their practices into the wider European context, Fors illustrates how they and their successors played a significant role in the development of our modern notion of matter and made a significant contribution to the modern European view of reality.
Lawrence M. Principe, author of The Secrets of Alchemy
“In this excellent book, Hjalmar Fors explores the changing domains and deployments of chemistry from roughly 1670 to 1770. While Sweden is central to his account, Fors deftly reintegrates Scandinavia into the wider European scene, such that the book is revelatory also of linked developments in Germany, England, France, and elsewhere. Institutional structures such as the Bureau of Mines and governmental entities play an important role in this story as do key figures such as Urban Hjärne, and Fors compellingly details the intersections of commercial and political interests with the technical, scientific, and social. Fors’s study is a significant contribution to the literature, and one that will certainly provoke discussion and further exploration. The Limits of Matter will be of interest not only to historians of science but also to those of Scandinavia, industrialization, mining, commerce, and of the Enlightenment generally.”
Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge
“Fors has produced a clever and perceptive study of the chemists working at the seventeenth and eighteenth century Swedish Bureau of Mines, one of the most important centers of technical expertise and administration in early modern Europe. He uses this study to propose a remarkably ambitious and effective reinterpretation of the transformation of the European worldview: the discredit of notions of spirits, witches, and mutable nature, and their displacement by a mechanical and utilitarian system of material elements and technological systems. Fors’s study shows how these fascinating changes were intimately linked with the reorganization of the institutions in which chemical experts plied their trade. As laboratories and government ministries allied themselves in the name of economic development and state power, so the places and the groups amongst which traditional beliefs about magical and occult powers flourished were simultaneously changed. Nor, so Fors urges, was this ever confined to a matter of local concern: rather, his study dramatizes the Europe-wide networks that linked chemical expertise, mining folklore and administrative policy in vividly characterized systems of exchange, debate, and controversy. This brilliant essay establishes itself as a major point of reference for future historical understanding of the relations between knowledge, culture, and society in the early modern world.”
Theodore M. Porter, University of California, Los Angeles
“While philosophers for two centuries have asked what the Enlightenment could be, Hjalmar Fors here excavates it from the files of the Swedish Bureau of Mines and puts it on display. Gnomes and trolls and alchemical transformations, considered still in the early eighteenth century as part of everyday mining experience, were not at first the victims of logical or experimental demonstration, but began to be excluded as impractical, and then as undignified. Modern chemistry was shaped in critical ways by the bureaucratic mobilization of technical knowledge. Fors’ history of this important topic is not merely instructive, but passionate and paradoxical.”

1 Introduction: The Edges of the Map

2 Of Witches, Trolls, and Inquisitive Men

3 Chymists in the Mining Business

4 From Curious to Ingenious Knowledge

5 Elements of Enlightenment

6 Capturing the Laughing Gnome

7 Conclusion: Material Reality and the Enlightenment


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