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Thomas Jefferson and Science Lab: Early 1800s Chemistry Lab Discovered at University of Virginia

Oct 19, 2015 02:41 PM EDT
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University of Virginia Rotunda
A chemical hearth co-designed by Thomas Jefferson to provide heat and ventilation for chemistry classes was recently discovered behind a wall at the University of Virginia's Rotunda, during a two-year renovation.
(Photo : Flickr: Eli Pousson)

A science lab designed by Thomas Jefferson was recently found in the main Rotunda at the University of Virginia (U.Va.), during an ongoing two-year renovation, according to a release.

Jefferson founded U.Va. in 1819, and he carefully planned the Rotunda to represent "the power of nature and the authority of reason," modeled after Italian classical architecture. Originally, it held the library and a few other things, as the Library of Congress website confirmed. 

So, why was the science lab--basically a chemical hearth, which supplied chemistry experiments with fuel and ventilation--lost for a while? In the 1850s it had been sealed in one of the walls on the lower floor, and was protected from a fire that in 1895 wrecked much of the interior of the building, as the release confirmed.

Workers recently uncovered the hearth. "It was a surprise, a very exciting one for us," Brian Hogg, who is senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect for the University, said in the release.

The hearth will be on permanent display after renovations are completed next spring.

In those early days in the Rotunda, chemistry experiments and demonstrations took place in two rooms on the bottom floor. Classes were taught by John Emmet, a natural-history professor who joined with Jefferson in stocking the space, said the release.

Here's more about the chemical hearth: It was constructed in a semi-circle in a niche, and received heat from two fireboxes (one wood, one coal). The system included brick tunnels running underground to supply fresh air to the workers and the fireboxes; flues moved the smoke and fumes outdoors again. Five workstations were set up on stone countertops.

It's possible that the chemical hearth was used by Emmet, and students had portable hearths for their experiments, noted Hogg.

To make it a bit more clear, Jody Lahendro, a supervising historic preservation architect for the university's Facilities Management department, said in the release, "Back then, the different experiments would get different levels of heat from different sources. For some, they would put the heat source under a layer of sand to more evenly disperse and temper the heat."

"This may be the oldest intact example of early chemical education in this country," Hogg said in the release.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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