Discover the Science History Institute

Telling the stories of chemistry, engineering, and the life sciences


Model Lifting a Styrofoam Log (1949)Science History Institute

“It’s like fun is your method here,” marveled a scientist after a public program.

The Science History Institute is a museum and library in Philadelphia, USA. We explain today’s science and technology through often playful, always compelling stories about the past and the future. 

We specialize in stories that connect advances in science to changes in everyday life. Learn the chemistry and engineering that connects silicon-rich sand to Teddy Ruxpin and iPhones.

Jenny Glusker Joins Rosalind Franklin at a Paris Fashion Show

Research in the life sciences has transformed biotechnology, medicine, and our sense of self. Learn about scientific leaders and the tradition of women in x-ray crystallography, including Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, and Jenny Glusker, who used this instrument.

What is this beast?

It’s a Bakelizer—a machine used around 1909 to form Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic. Our reconstruction illustrates the role of chemical engineering in the making of the contemporary world.

Stephanie Kwolek Spins Kevlar

Want to stretch your mind?

We help you understand innovative technologies like nylon, GORE-TEX, and Kevlar with rare objects, photographs, advertisements, oral history interviews, and historical documents. 

Eww, leeches!

Follow this display to the right to learn how changing ideas about the human body led from 18th-century bleeding bowls to 21st-century visions of genetic medicine.

Look! It’s a…grey metal self-charting desk thingy?

This Varian A-60 NMR Spectrometer is part of our world-leading collection of mid-20th-century analytical chemistry instruments. Scientists used it to understand the chemistry of life.

Varian A-60 Proton NMR Console Varian A-60 Proton NMR Console (1961) by Varian Inc.Science History Institute

A label warns that it malfunctions exactly when you most need it to work.

Like Frankenstein’s monster…

...this instrument was built from discarded parts. But it led to a Nobel Prize for chemist John Fenn. You can read his goofy poems in our archives, as well as the much drier records of his battle over patent rights.

Our temporary exhibitions connect science to today’s pressing issues, like science and immigration, and the ways people express themselves through fabric textiles and color. Our Downstream exhibition explored 200 years of changes in water pollution and environmental protection. 

How do we know the environment is changing?

Discover the objects scientists have used to sense environmental change, from measuring smoke pollution with Ringelmann charts to NASA’s ozone-mapping spectrometers. 

Scientists are raised, not born. Our archives and rare book collection reveal the history of science education—and who has been excluded from opportunities to learn. Scroll right to see historical chemistry sets, or learn more in Science at Play.

Carolyn Bertozzi (2022) by Christopher MichelScience History Institute

Carolyn Bertozzi on the Propagation Effect

Our oral history collection has over 700 interviews. It includes 23 Nobel Prize winners and more than 90 women in science. Listen to 2022 Nobel laureate Carolyn Bertozzi explain why some fields in chemistry have fewer women than other fields.

Alexis Pedrick and David Barnes interviewing in front of the Lazaretto (2023-04-01) by Mariel CarrScience History Institute

Innate: How Science Invented the Myth of Race [Trailer]

Distillations, our podcast and digital magazine platform, taps into the work of historians and other researchers to reveal science’s role in a complicated and often strange world. Check out the series Innate: How Science Invented the Myth of Race.

The Alchemist (1937) by N. C. WyethScience History Institute

Curious about alchemy?

Our fine art collection includes over 150 pictures of alchemists at work in their labs. You can learn more about the paintings in our Age of Alchemy story. This one was painted by N.C. Wyeth in 1937. 

Nathaniel Wyeth (1990)Science History Institute

The Alchemist isn’t the only Wyeth we’ve got. N.C. Wyeth’s son Nathaniel invented the PET plastic soda bottle. His portrait is one of more than 13,000 objects and documents in our digital collections, all free to download at whatever resolution you need.

Isaac Newton's copy of the Preparation of the [Sophick] Mercury for the [Philosophers'] Stone Isaac Newton's copy of the Preparation of the [Sophick] Mercury for the [Philosophers'] StoneScience History Institute

Our rare books and manuscripts form one of the most comprehensive collections on early modern chemistry and alchemy anywhere.

Zoom in to read Isaac Newton’s personal copy of an American recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone. 

Researchers in the Othmer Library of Chemical History (2022) by Emma GothelfScience History Institute

Take our money!

We fund scholars from around the world to do research in our collections every year. They write books, create innovative teaching materials, or use our resources in artistic projects. One scholar recently used our DDT cans in a story about the war between humans and mosquitoes.

Or give us money!

We’re a nonprofit dedicated to telling the stories of science. We share this knowledge for free, reaching diverse audiences in Philadelphia and around the world. Support our work, or come visit us to learn how the shiny chip in your credit card works. 

Credits: Story

Written and Curated by Roger Turner
Edited by Jesse Smith
Oral History Editing by Sarah Schneider
Digital Design by Clare Hirai

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.