The close association of chemistry with practical arts has figured prominently in the history of technology. In the index to the eight-volume History of technology edited by Charles Singer et al., for example, references to chemistry fill almost one page, whereas there is no reference at all to physics. Historians of the chemical revolution have not dwelt on this association with technology, presumably because they have regarded the revolution as a transformation in theory.
In the beginning of the 18th century, traditional chemical theory had little to do with the daily practice of chemistry. Existing theory was antiquated, almost entirely qualitative, and infused with compounds of Aristotelian elements and Paracelsian principles. As chemical descriptions of processes and substances were refined, old theories
lost their empirical foundation. Theories capable of organizing the growing body of empirical observations were in order. Mining practice, one of the most important practical fields and one that contributed to a changing use of numbers in chemistry, will be a focus here. The shape of the resulting systems bore the imprint of mining practice.
By 1700, the balance had long been in use in both metallurgy and assaying. The hydrostatic balance determined density and controlled purity of different substances, especially the noble ones, and assisted in the control of less than noble practices. After introducing the balance in testing gold sand imported from Guinea, the British noticed a marked decrease in "the swindling the natives practiced." But the method could be used only to determine mixtures of metals, never to decide chemical composition. In fact, the hydrostatic balance was afflicted by so many sources of error that it gave results scarcely better than assayer's needles and touchstones. (The needles were gold-silver mixtures of known composition; by matching the color of an unknown sample to that of a needle, the assayer could quickly estimate its makeup.) Despite the fact that the balance played a modest role in practical metallurgy, knowledge of density did not bring the chemist to a better understanding of chemical processes or of the chemical characteristics of a given substance.
The chemical (as opposed to the hydrostatic) balance does not appear in illustrations of laboratories of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Chemists did not use it in their daily work. Only in
commercial mining, which typically involved amounts of material far larger than anything of interest to the chemist or the assayer, was the balance at home. The most sensitive chemical balances were used exclusively for the weighing of noble metals. In De re metallica (1556), Georgius Agricola treats the balance in a section on the assayer's work and the purity of metals, and emphasizes that the most sensitive must be confined to weighing "the bead of gold and silver," since ores and other large weights would injure it. The balance played no part in the production of gold, but only in the measurement of the final, refined result.
Echoes of Agricola's attitude toward sensitive balances can be heard to the end of the 18th century. In 1689 J.J. Becher distinguished three types of balances with respect to sensitivity; his categories recurred in the writings of Johann Cramer in the mid, and of Sven Rinman in the late, 18th century. According to Rinman, the most sensitive balances, which could register changes as small as 1/128 ass (about 0.4 milligram), should be used only to weigh "the smallest bead. . .of the noble metals." Agricola, Becher, Cramer, and Rinman all assigned the same tasks to the balance. They did so independently of any theoretical commitments. Theories in chemistry retained their qualitative character until the end of the 18th century. However, from about 1750 the balance began to take on importance in the shaping of chemical theory.