The Laboratorio Chimico of the Museum of Science,
University of Lisbon: Reflections about documenting a
Maria do Carmo Elvas
Isabel Marília Peres
Samuel Gessner
The Laboratorio Chimico of the Museum of Science of the University of
Lisbon gives the historian an interesting opportunity: the Laboratorio’s surprisingly
intact state and its collection provide an excellent case to look into the conditions
of scientific practice at the Lisbon Polytechnic School by the end of the nineteenth
century. Until now, narratives about the accomplishments of the important local
chemists, Júlio Máximo de Oliveira Pimentel (1809–1884), António Augusto de Aguiar
(1838-1887), Agostinho Vicente Lourenço (1826-1893) and José Júlio Bettencourt
Rodrigues (1843-1893), have been based on textual sources: official reports, memoirs,
scientific and popularising publications, archive material, and, to a great extent, oral
tradition.1 Material heritage offers another important source that can be explored further
in the future. This chapter is the result of a study of about 40 objects belonging to the
Museum’s chemistry collection aimed at contributing to a better knowledge of their
contexts of use. Our exploration of the collection brought us into contact with the
practice of chemistry at the Laboratorio Chimico of the Polytechnic School, and late
nineteenth-century higher education laboratories in general. This chapter focuses on
two case studies: the Bunsen-Kirchhoff spectroscope and related spectral charts; and
the gasometer, which will be discussed by addressing the major difficulties encountered
during this research.
The Polytechnic School of Lisbon was a landmark in Portugal because it
was one of the few schools where chemistry was taught. It was founded in 1837 in
Elvas et. al
order to prepare students for the Army and Navy Schools, while offering access to
higher science education for students of other professions, medicine and pharmacy.
In accordance with the foundational document, the School was to be provided with a
Library, an Astronomical Observatory, a Cabinet of Physics, a Chemical Laboratory,
a Natural History Cabinet, a Botanical Garden and other facilities. Disciplines were
organised and taught in five courses. The sixth chair (6ª Cadeira) - ‘General Chemistry
and Principles of its Applications to Manufactures’ - was usually lectured in the second
year. An additional discipline of ‘Chemical Analysis and Organic Chemistry’ was
created in 1859.
Various professors established practical courses associated with the two
chemistry disciplines, following the example of schools in Europe.2 The first chemistry
professor of the Lisbon Polytechnic School, Júlio Máximo de Oliveira Pimentel,
organised the Laboratorio so that students could carry out a variety of practical
operations included in the syllabus and mentioned in his three-volume Lessons of
general chemistry and its main applications3, but attendance at laboratory lectures was
not mandatory; only in 1891 did laboratory lectures become compulsory, following the
renovation of the Laboratorio led by Rodrigues.4
Questions and sources
The chemistry collection of the Museum of Science comprises c. 3000 items.
The majority are from the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The
Museum began collecting chemistry artefacts and instruments in the early 1990s, while
the Laboratorio was still in use for teaching and research by the Chemistry Department
of the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon. The majority of the items,
however, were collected during the renovation of the Laboratorio, between 1998 and
2007. The collection is supported by documentation held at the Museum’s Historical
The study described in this chapter was developed between September 2005
and July 2006. It aimed at contributing to a better understanding of the integration of
the existing collection in its historical space, the Laboratorio Chimico of the Lisbon
Polytechnic School. The selection of objects to be studied was based on analysis of
the original images of the Laboratorio Chimico. Nineteenth-century iconography of
the Laboratorio is rich and diverse, encompassing photographs, drawings, floor plans
and engravings. A careful examination of these images, particularly photographs,
enabled the identification of some artefacts from the collection. Using these artefacts
as a starting point, we tried to answer the following questions: a) which of the objects
present in the Museum collection today were actually part of the Laboratorio Chimico?
And for how long have they been used?; b) what was the context of their use during that
particular period of teaching, research and development at the Laboratorio Chimico?;
c) which objects were supposedly used but are not found in the collection?; d) when,
where and why have they been purchased? In order to address these questions, we have
used different types of sources that can roughly be organised in four groups:
1) Objects, including inscriptions, labels, and marks of use;
2) Textbooks written by the professors, where certain experimental
apparatuses are described and depicted. They also indicate recommended
experiments that served as reference for both professors and students.
Documenting a collection
We have also included in this group commercial catalogues, which can
provide approximate dating for the objects. About a dozen such catalogues
exist in the Museum of Science Archive and Library (firms represented
are Alvergniat Frère, Paris; Brewer Frères, Paris; A. L. G. Dehne, Halle;
Desaga, Heidelberg; Gerhardt, Bonn; Schuchardt, Görlitz; Société Centrale
de Produits Chimiques, Paris; Trommsdorff, Erfurt; and Warmbrunn-Quilitz,
Berlin, among others).
3) Iconography of the Laboratorio, particularly photographs and engravings.
About 20 photographs and engravings have survived; some can be dated and
attributed to Júlio Rodrigues’ period as holder of the 6ª Cadeira.5 We included
in this group scientific articles; about 20 articles were written by professors,
substitutes and scientific lecturers of the 6ª Cadeira.
4) Finally, we also included invoices and other administrative documents
from the Museum’s Historical Archive, e.g. the 1854 inventory (equipment
is likely to have been used for decades), curriculum information before 1900
(only available for the following academic years: 1860-61, 1864-65, 1872-73,
1877-78, and 1898), as well as administrative reports and correspondence.
All these sources had to be studied thoroughly, cross-checked and interpreted
in a critical manner. As a result, we have succeeded in gathering evidence about
the context of a limited number of objects (about 40). Although the outcome is still
preliminary, in the following we will summarise our approach through two examples.
Spectral Analysis
The Museum collection possesses a pair of coloured charts with a series
of metal spectra (Figure 1, only one table depicted). The tables represent the solar
spectrum and the wavelengths of the spectral lines of emission of different metals.
Figure 1. Spectral table, MCUL2017 (Photo: M. C. Elvas, courtesy Museum of Science, University of Lisbon).
Elvas et. al
At the top of the chart we can read the following title: Spectraltafel nach der
Originalzeichnung von G. Kirchhoff und R. Bunsen (Spectral table after the original
design of G. Kirchhoff and R. Bunsen). This is contemporary with Vicente Lourenço’s
period at the Lisbon Polytechnic School, the same period when the Laboratorio
Chimico was renewed and modernised by Rodrigues between 1888 and 1890. Across
Europe, spectral analysis was beginning to be taught in mineral chemistry by that time.6
Spectral tables can be found on several of the original photographic images,
apparently taken at the end of the year 1890 after the renovation works were finished.
Spectral tables also appear on engravings made from the same photographs in the
illustrated journal O Occidente (Lisbon) in January 1891.
Figure 2. Laboratorio Chimico7, s.d. (MCUL Historical Archives, University of Lisbon).
We know from Gerhardt’s catalogue that this firm from Bonn commercially
produced these coloured spectral charts.8 Although we have found no documents
concerning the acquisition of the spectral tables (such as correspondence, invoices, or
other documentation) for the 6ª Cadeira, we were able to find an invoice which yielded
evidence for the purchase of two wooden frames in 1883. The back of the frames in
which the spectral tables are mounted bears a label with the name of the supplier which
corresponds to the name found in the invoice.
In 1885 or 1886, a preparation apparatus for spectral analysis was bought from
the instrument maker Gerhardt.9 A Bunsen-Kirchhoff type of spectroscope had already
been bought more than a decade earlier, in 1872. This purchase was documented in the
literature10. Vicente Lourenço seems to have attended Bunsen’s lectures once, sometime
between 1860 and 1862.11 The Library of the Museum of Science of the University of
Lisbon holds a manuscript that appears to be Lourenço’s notes of Bunsen’s lectures
Documenting a collection
in Heidelberg. When Vicente Lourenço was finally appointed Professor Substituto
in Organic Chemistry in 1863, he wrote a report about the importance of acquiring
the necessary equipment to teach the discipline. In his list, we can find a Bunsen and
Kirchhoff spectral analysis apparatus.
In the academic year following his report, 1864/1865, spectral analysis
experiments appear in Lourenço’s teaching syllabus of Organic Chemistry,12 in others
words even before the spectroscope was available. In 1872, a customs clearance
was issued addressed to Lourenço: ‘Products coming from Le Havre: 3 boxes with
Spectral Apparatus’.13 We therefore have good reason to believe this is the instrument
from Duboscq, which is today at the Museum of Science collection (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Spectroscope of the Bunsen-Kirchhoff type from Duboscq, MCUL169 (Photo M. Peres, courtesy
Museum of Science, University of Lisbon).
Some of the chemistry textbooks used by the professors of the Polytechnic
School (e.g. Wurtz’s Encyclopaedia14 and Fresenius’ Traité15) mention the use of
spectral charts in spectral analysis teaching introduced as early as 1860. These
textbooks were also useful guides for the students’ representation of observed spectra.
In chemistry, generally, drawing and observing spectra were an essential skill to any
chemist. Our study, which combined printed sources, manuscripts and the material
study of objects, suggests that although spectral analysis had been taught at the Lisbon
Polytechnic School since quite early (mid 1860s), practical courses in the Laboratorio
were implemented later, after the spectroscope and the spectral tables were acquired
(1870s and 1880s).
Oxygen Production
Our second example is related to oxygen production in the Laboratorio
Chimico. The chemistry collection of the Museum of Science has two metal Regnault
gasometers (Figure 4). Gasometers are depicted in original photographs of the lecture
theatre taken in 1891 (Figure 5).16
Elvas et. al
Figure 4. Regnault Gasometer, MCUL2471 (Photo M. C. Elvas, courtesy Museum of Science of the University
of Lisbon).
Oxygen production was part of the practical training at the Laboratorio
Chimico with Professor Oliveira Pimentel, as indicated in the syllabus for the 1856-57
academic year.17 In his Lições de Chymica, Pimentel describes the method he considered
most efficient (extraction from manganese dioxide), at least in those cases where large
quantities of oxygen were required and purity was not of prime importance.18
Figure 5.Lecture Theater of the Laboratorio Chimico, Polytechnic School of Lisbon19, 1891 (MCUL Historical
Documenting a collection
Oxygen preparation would be mentioned again in the syllabuses for 18606120 and 1864-65,21 with Bettencourt Rodrigues as professor of the 6a Cadeira, and
in 1872-187322 when António Augusto de Aguiar (1838-1887) was the chair holder.
Fremy’s Encyclopaedia (used as reference for the 6ª Cadeira) contains a description
of how a gasometer works as a collector and store of oxygen.23 Several documents
from the Museum’s Archive indicate the acquisition of gasometers. Among them is a
document mentioning the repair of gasometer funnels and their purchase from the firm
Wiesnegg in 1874.24
The presence of gasometers is evidence of oxygen production in the
Laboratorio. Gasometers were commonly used in late nineteenth-century chemistry
laboratories throughout Europe. Although the era of pneumatic chemistry was gone,
professors continued to reproduce the classical experiments of analysis and synthesis
of water, and oxygen production, initiated in the eighteenth century by Lavoisier.
Moreover, synthetic and analytic experiments required a supply of gases, for example,
the elementary analysis of organic compounds by combustion, currently carried out
in the experimental lectures on Chemical Analysis and Organic Chemistry at the
Polytechnic School.
The two case studies presented show the challenges a historian is likely to
encounter when dealing with material culture. Five different situations occurred when
we cross-checked material, iconographic and documental sources.
• Some scientific objects depicted on original nineteenth-century images of the
Laboratorio Chimico and in other documents still exist in the Museum collection,
and can be unequivocally identified through their material singularities.
• Some scientific objects depicted on photographs and other documents have not
survived and are absent from the collection.
• Some scientific objects depicted and existing in the Museum collection are so
numerous and were of such common use that dating and identification is difficult,
for example, a glass retort.
• Some objects like the Bunsen-Kirchhoff Spectroscope could not be identified in
photographs but there was information about them in archival sources.
• Some objects belonging to the collection, for which no documented sources exist,
show clear traces of having been used in the Laboratorio Chimico, for example a
glass funnel with the inscription ‘6ª Cad.’.
The identification of the equipment, apparatuses, utensils, and tools acquired
for the Laboratorio Chimico during the period of José Júlio Rodrigues is a complex
task. Among other challenges that emerged were:
1) Although the Regulamento of the Polytechnic School of 185425
required the making of an inventory, apparently no inventory of
equipment belonging to the 6ª Cadeira was ever made. The only
Elvas et. al
nineteenth-century inventory found so far is the one of 1854, the
year when the Regulamento was published.
2) Many objects were used for long periods after 1890, until they
became obsolete. They have served in more than one context of
3) The equipment belonging to the Polytechnic School of Lisbon was
incorporated into the Faculdade de Ciências (Faculty of Science
of the University of Lisbon), in 1911. In the late 1990s and early
2000s, a part of the collection of the Faculty became the core of
the heritage of the Museum of Science. That implied the removal
of the laboratory equipment from its previous context and hence,
necessarily, the loss of contextual information.
4) Glass objects are difficult to date unless they have ‘6ª cadeira’
or ‘Mineral Chemistry’ labels, or the mark of the glass maker.
However, these cases are rare. The case of glass retorts is
particularly telling as they were commonly used in chemistry from
the times of alchemy until the 1960s.
Despite the challenges of identification, dating and interpretation, the
collection conveys a wealth of historical data. Its major importance resides in the fact
that it is a university collection: assembled and developed by professors, students and
technicians, the collection contains evidence about teaching and research in a given
Our study combined printed sources, manuscripts and the material study of
objects, which allowed us to have an approach to the scientific practice at the Lisbon
Polytechnic School. There is evidence of the great difficulties felt by professors to
implement the practical courses in the Laboratorio Chimico: as early as the 1860s,
various professors expressed the importance of practical lectures for higher education in
chemistry; practical courses associated with the chemical disciplines were established;
Pimentel organised the Laboratorio so the students could carry out a variety of practical
operations. Even some equipment necessary for the experimental lectures, included
in the teaching syllabus, was acquired. However, the professors’ ideal of ‘teaching
by doing’ would not be reached until 1891. In that year, experimental lectures in the
Laboratorio chimico were finally implemented, after the renovation of the Laboratorio
conducted by José Julio Rodrigues.
The authors are grateful to Fernando Bragança Gil, Fernanda Madalena Costa, Elisa
Maia, Pilar Pereira and Marta Lourenço for their suggestions and assistance.
1. B. Herold and Ana Carneiro, ‘Antonio Augusto de Aguiar, 1838–1887’ in
Documenting a collection
Biografias.asp, 2005; Janeiro et al. (eds.), Divórcio entre cabeça e mãos, Livraria Escolar Editora,
Lisbon, 1998; Janeiro ed., Demonstrar ou Manipular? O Laboratório de Química Mineral da Escola
Politécnica de Lisboa na sua Época (1884-1894), Centro Interdisciplinar de Ciência, Tecnologia e
Sociedade da Universidade de Lisboa (CICTSUL), Livraria Escolar Editora, Lisbon, 1996; I. Cruz,
‘Preparadores de Química da Escola Politécnico (1837-1856)’, Centro interdisciplinar da Universidade
de Lisboa (CICTSUL), [s.d.]; I. Cruz, ‘Chemistry, the chemical industry and
the teaching of chemistry in Portugal (1887–1907): The case of Alfredo da Silva’, in 4th International
Conference on History of Chemistry, Communication in Chemistry in Europe: Across borders and
across generations, Hungarian Chemical Society, Budapest, 2003; A. Rocke, The Quiet Revolution,
Hermann Kolbe and the Science of Organic Chemistry, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los
Angeles, 1993. F. Bragança Gil and G. Salvado Canelhas (eds.), Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade
de Lisboa. Passado/presente Perspectivas Futuras, [Exposição comemorativa do] 150° aniversário
da escola politécnica [e do] 75° aniversário da Faculdade de Ciências [da Universidade de Lisboa],
Museu de Ciência da Universidade de Lisboa, Lisbon, 1987; P. J. Cunha, A escola Politécnica de Lisboa,
breve notícia histórica, Faculdade de Ciências de Lisboa, Primeiro centenário da Fundação da Escola
Politécnica de Lisboa 1837-1937, Lisbon, 1937. See Leitão’s literature review on this volume, p. *.
2. A. V. Lourenço, ‘Laboratorio e Ensino Chimico’, in Escola Polytechnica (1877-1878), s.l., s. edit,
3. J. M. O. Pimentel, Lições de Chimica Geral e suas Principais Applicações, Lisbon, 1850-1852.
4. V. Leitão, A Química Inorgânica e Analítica na Escola Politécnica de Lisboa e Academia Politécnica
do Porto (1837-1890). Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia da Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Dissertação
de Mestrado), Lisbon, 1998.
5. These photographs are extant in the BMCUL (sigs PH7-0470-0000-B (Cx. 1, folha 47), PH7-04710000-B, PH7-0472-0000-B (Cx. 1, folha 47), PH7-0473-0000-B (folha 47) (negative PH1-0044-87-B),
PH1-0019-87-B (folha 2) (negative PH-0044-87-B), PH7-0475-0000-B (folha 48) (the same as PH10045-87-B (folha 4), negative PH1-0045-87-B), PH7-0477-0000-B (folha 48), PH7-0478-0000-B (folha
49 vº) (based on the same negative PH3-0742-00-B (folha 98)), PH3-0742-00-B F37-/B2-2 (Folha 98
verso), PH1-0045-87-B (folha 4), PH1-0046-87-B (folha 4) (negative PH-0046-87-B), PH3-0741-00-B
F37-/B2-1 (Folha 98 verso) (modern reproduction of print extant in Vila Viçosa), PH3-0737-00-B (folha
98)), the Arquivo Fotográfico Municipal de Lisboa (sigs A8192, ROC 000084, n° 6994), Gabinete de
Estudos Olisiponenses, Palácio de Beau Séjour (sigs. 133-G, FT8362, 61302), the Instituto da Biblioteca
Nacional e do Livro (sigs. Iconografia, P.I. n° 3971), and in the Arquivo da Fundação da Casa de
Bragança. - Núcleo do Laboratorio Chimico da Escola Politécnica no Museu Biblioteca do Paço Ducal
de Vila Viçosa (there are now copies of these at the BMCUL in the photography folder, p. 98). There may
be still more in existence. At least a set of numerous photographs were shot by the ‘technical team’ of
the ‘6th chair’ (cf. O Occidente, ‘Estabelecimentos Scientificos de Portugal’, 11 de Janeiro 1891, 14, no.
434, 12-14).
6. K. Hentschel, ‘The culture of visual representations in spectroscopic education and laboratory
instruction’, Physics in Perspective (1999), 1, 282-327.
7. PH7-470-0000-B, archive MCUL [Laboratório, piso de baixo, vista da ‘geradora’], [s.d.], 165×130.
8. C. Gerhardt, Marquart’s Lager Chemischer Utensilien, Catalogue des Appareils de Chimie et Produits
Chimiques, Catalogue F, Charles Georgi, 7th edn, Bonn, 1884, [-1]-78.
9. Ministério do Reino, Conta Documentada da Receita e Despeza da Escola Polytechnica, Archive
MCUL, Maço do ano lectivo 1885/1886, Dezembro de 1885, sheet 184.
10. I. M. Peres, O Ensino da Análise Química Espectral: Um Compromisso entre Químicos, Fabricantes
de Instrumentos Científicos e Professores (Um Estudo de Caso na Escola Politécnica e na Faculdade de
Ciências de Lisboa, de 1860 a 1960), Dissertação de Mestrado, Departamento de Química e Bioquímica
da Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, Lisbon, 2006.
11. Ibid., 147-148.
12. Escola Polytechnica, Programma das Cadeiras da Escola Polytechnica: Anno Lectivo de 1864-1865.
Imprensa Nacional, Lisbon, 1864.
13. Ministério Do Reino – Repartição De Contabilidade, Nota de Despacho de 20 de Junho de 1872.
MCUL Historical Archives, 1872, translation by the authors.
14. A. Wurtz, Dictionnaire de Chimie Pure et Appliquée, Librairie Hachette, Paris, 1874.
15. C. Fresenius, Traité d’Analyse Chimique Qualitative, F. Savy, Libraire-Éditeur, Paris, 1871.
16. Image of the Amphitheatre of the Polytechnic School of Lisbon, 1891 (Archive of the Museum of
Elvas et. al
17. Escola Polytechnica, Programma das Cadeiras da Escola Polytechnica: Anno Lectivo de 1856-1857,
Imprensa Nacional, Lisbon, 1856.
18. J. M. Pimentel, ‘Estampa III’, in Lições de Chymica Geral e suas Principaes Applicações, Tomo
Terceiro, Lisbon, 1850.
19. PH7-0474-0000-B (sheet 48), archive MCUL [Bancada do Anfiteatro de sul-este], 160×122.
20. Escola Polytechnica, Programma das Cadeiras da Escola Polytechnica: Anno Lectivo de 1860-1861,
Imprensa Nacional, Lisbon, 1860.
21. Escola Polytechnica, Programma das Cadeiras da Escola Polytechnica: Anno Lectivo de 1864-1865,
Imprensa Nacional, Lisbon, 1864.
22. Escola Polytechnica, Programma das Cadeiras da Escola Polytechnica: Anno Lectivo de 1872-1873,
Imprensa Nacional, Lisbon, 1872.
23. M. Fremy, ‘Planche 20’, Encyclopédie Chimique, - Atlas – Dunod Éditeur, Paris, 1881, 46.
24. Invoice of the Laboratorio Chimico, academic year of 1864-1865 (Archive of the Museum of
25. Cf. Chapter ‘Junta administrativa’, Article 230º of the Regulamento da Escola Polytechnica, Janeiro
de 1854, Typografia de José Baptista Morando, Lisbon, 1854, 47. An exemplar of this Regulamento
exists e.g. in the Arquivo do Gabinete de Estudos Olissiponenses, shelfmark AE 48CX.

The Laboratorio Chimico of the Museum of Science