Domestic Laboratories

Willem van Odekercken (attr.), The Servant, 1631-77, Oil on Panel, 31 x 23,9 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

The question of the places where early modern experiments took place is directly related to the social position and the way in which natural-philosophical research is framed. Neither the word experiment nor the word laboratory had the same meaning as they have today until after the second half of the 17th century. Instead, they were much more broadly defined. The recipe book by Lord Patrick Ruthven, published by the same publisher in 1654, the year before Lady Arundel’s collection, promises “sundry experiments”. The foreword is explicitly aimed at “vertuous ladies”. In the foreword, the book reveals itself as an extension of the collection The Ladies Cabinet Opened, published anonymously in 1639, the title of which already promised such “experiments”. The book, which appeared in the year of the wedding of Patrick Ruthven’s daughter Mary with Anthony van Dyck, can thus be ascribed to Ruthven as well. It was expanded 1654 to include experiments in distillation: “But hearing in the mean time of certain rare experiments, and choice extractions of Oyls, Waters, & c. the practice of a noble hand, and of approved abilities (…) I have with much pains, and some charges, sought after and at length happily purchased them, and incorporated them with other secrets of several kinds of valuable concernment.”

Patrick Ruthven, The Ladies Cabinet, 1655

Like Lady Arundel’s mother, Ruthven also spent time in the Tower at the same time as the Earl of Northumberland and Walter Raleigh, Ruthven being imprisoned for the longest time of them all (Ian McCallum, Patrick Ruthven, Alchemist and Physician 2004 and Jennifer Stine, Opening Closets: The Discovery of Household Medicine in England 1996). An experimental culture was established in the tower, alchemical processes were being researched, but most of all medicines were produced by distillation. The sites of knowledge production, such as the ambiguous space of the Tower, were particularly important in the field of alchemy and shaped the evaluation of the knowledge produced.

The most important experimental spaces were located in aristocratic private residences, often residences of noble women (Shapin 1988). For Robert Boyle (1627–1692) the laboratory in the house of his sister Lady Katherine Ranelagh (1615–1691) was a holy place, dedicated to the god Vulcan, where he served as a priest in the temple of nature (Rose-Mary Sargent, Robert Boyle and the Masculine Methods of Science 2004 and Margaret Cook, Divine Artifice and Natural Mechanism: Robert Boyle’s Mechanical Philosophy of Nature 2001). For Boyle, work in the laboratory equals worshipping God.

The experiment as an encounter with the divine in nature necessarily combines the solitariness and seclusion of the hermit and the need for public legitimation as a condition for the validity of experimental knowledge. The laboratory thus became a place as sacred and secluded as it was public. When the Royal Society was founded, the rooms at Arundel House were used to display successful chemistry experiments, and private laboratories of well-known naturalists were usually also public venues.

Geertruydt Roghman, Housework Series (Cleaning), 1648-42, Engraving, 213 x 171 mm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Experimental knowledge and natural philosophical truth was created between private research and experiments and the public presentation and discussion of the results. The laboratory, as both a private retreat and a venue for public demonstrations, played a decisive role in legitimizing experiments in natural philosophy and against accusations of charlatanism and black magic (Antonio Clericuzio, Sooty Empiricks ‘and Natural Philosophers: The Status of Chemistry in the Seventeenth Century 2010). Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist (1610) shows how important the equipment of such a room was for the success of the work, and how the connection to a specific experimental site and the hope for a successful experiment harbored the promise of social mobility (John Shanahan, Ben Jonson’s ‘Alchemist’ and Early Modern Laboratory Space 2008).

Early modern spaces where experimental knowledge was gained were far from being uniform and clearly identifiable. Claire Preston concludes from the descriptions of the interiors in which the icons of the Scientific Revolution carried out their experiments that the ideal laboratory only existed in Bacon’s New Atlantis. Few constants can be identified in terms of location, form and equipment at this time when the idea of the laboratory was only just beginning to emerge. It is often difficult to distinguish between private or household rooms and laboratories, as Owen Hannaway shows (Laboratory Design and the Aim of Science: Andreas Libavius vs. Tycho Brahe 1986). A new study on Thrifty Science by Simon Werrett further emphasizes the fact that the origins of experimental culture were make-shift, using equipment and materials readily available in domestic spaces. The origins of the laboratory can be found in the home.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.