Chemistry Lab: Where Everybody Knows Your Name #TBT

Bowler hats, handlebar mustaches, lovely updos, and glass bottles – aside from the fact that this photo is not in a bar, it could fit right in with the other photos in the introduction to 1980s TV show Cheers.

Students in a chemistry laboratory, circa 1892. University Photographs, RS 13/6/F, Box 1052.

Students in a chemistry laboratory, circa 1892. University Photographs, RS 13/6/F, Box 1052.

Like the theme song (and this post’s title) suggest, this chemistry lab was small enough that everybody in the class probably did know everybody else’s names. Chemistry has been a part of the Iowa State curriculum since the beginning. The department was established in 1871. Originally taught in Old Main, chemistry courses were taught in the Chemical and Physical Laboratory from 1871 until 1913, when it was destroyed by fire. So, the lab in the photo above no longer exists (and would most likely not be up to current standards anyway). It was located at what is now the south end of Pearson Hall, across from Beardshear Hall (formerly the location of Old Main).

More information on the old Chemical and Physical Laboratory can be found here. Stop by and see some more photos from the early days of chemistry at Iowa State, along with many other departments. We’re always glad you came!

CyPix: Glass Blowing in the Chemistry Department

On the heels of my last post, I’d like to share this photo found on our Flickr site:

Wayne "Breezy" (or "Breezey") Jones and Harry Svec creating glass vials, beakers, and tubes for the ISU Chemistry Department, 1955

Wayne “Breezy” Jones and Harry Svec creating glass vials, beakers, and tubes for the ISU Chemistry Department, 1955. RS 13/6/F

Wayne “Breezy” Jones was a technical glassblower for the Chemistry Department here at Iowa State University, taught and trained by Harry Svec. Even though Svec is without his characteristic bow tie in this photo, it most certainly is him. Svec learned his glassblowing craft from George Pickel of John Carroll University, who learned the craft in Europe, and Ed Thomas, who learned his skills at St. Louis University. After arriving at Iowa State in 1941, Svec took over as the glass technician, replacing George Harrison, who left for another job. Later on, Svec trained Jones, a house painter who became adept at the technique of joining metal elements to glass. He, in turn, trained another technician, who then trained the next generation. Svec liked to say that all of the glass technicians at Iowa State are direct descendents of Pickel and Thomas.

For more information on Svec’s glassblowing journey, see the Harry J. Svec Papers. The Department of Chemistry collections may have a additional information as well. Happy researching!

Harry J. Svec: Devoted Chemist and Cyclone

Forty-two years of involvement with Iowa State University is impressive in itself, but add in the fact that those years included work on the Manhattan Project, being a founding editor of a scientific journal, being the namesake of scientific reference material, extensive research and awards for that research, and an ever present bow tie, and those 42 years become even more remarkable. Dr. Henry J. Svec did just that, all while getting married and being father to nine children. He must have had excellent time management skills!

Harry J. Svec, 1975

Harry J. Svec, 1975. RS 13/6/53, box 19, folder 36

Svec was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1918. After graduating magna cum laude from John Carroll University, he went to graduate school at Iowa State College (University) in 1941, where he studied chemistry. During this time, he became the glassblower for the Chemistry Department, creating diffusion pumps and other items for research. Two of these diffusion pumps are included in the collection.


Glass mercury diffusion pump made by Svec, 1941. Artifact 2003-203.002

Before long, the US entered World War II, and Svec was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project under Dr. Frank Spedding. Information on the Manhattan Project at Iowa State can be found in previous blog posts here and here. After that project, Svec was appointed to the Ames Laboratory/Institute for Atomic Research and earned his Ph.D. in 1950, at which point he gained faculty status. He served as Chemistry Department faculty until his retirement in 1983, when he was granted Professor Emeritus status.

Over the course of his career, Svec taught classes, conducted and published research, and was actively involved in professional organizations, such as the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. He was a Fellow of what is now the Royal Society of Chemistry, and was a founding editor of the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry and Ion Physics (now the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry). Mass spectrometry was his main area of study, and in fact Svec was an early contributor to the field of laser mass spectrometry. He even built the first mass spectrometers at Iowa State, components of which are included in the artifact collection. Mass spectrometer blueprints are also included in his collection in a map case folder.

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Left: main components of a mass spectrometer, undated; Right: a complete mass spectrometer, undated. RS 13/6/53, box 10, folder 17

After his retirement in 1983, Svec finished writing a history on Iowa State University’s Chemistry Department, which was published by that department in 2006. He also received the American Chemical Society’s Zimmerman Award for Environmental Science in 1984 for his work in developing the resin extraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) methods for removing organic pollutants in water. He certainly had a productive career, of which anyone would be proud.

All of this and much more information can be found in his collection, the Harry J. Svec Papers, RS 13/6/53. Be sure to check out the artifacts too, including an early twentieth century Christian Becker Chainomatic two-pan balance not unlike these (top of the page, with dials). Curious about the Ames Laboratory or the Chemistry Department in general? Come see our collections on them! We’ll be happy to help.