The toys of organic chemistry: Material manipulatives and inductive reasoning

Kate McKinney Maddalena


Chemical visualizations and models are special kinds of situated, inductive arguments. In this paper, I examine several historical case studies—an archive of images from museums, special collections, and popular magazines—as examples of emergent practices of physical modeling as theoretical play which became the basis for molecular biology and structural chemistry. Specifically, I trace a legacy of visualization tools that starts with Archibald Scott Cooper and Friedrich Kekulé in the late 1800s, crystallizes as material manipulatives in Kekulé’s student Jacobus Henricus Van’t Hoff and his folded paper “toys,” is legitimized in the California lab of Linus Pauling, and is glorified in the popular imaginary with James Watson and Francis Crick’s model of DNA. My tracing then follows several threads into contemporary modeling practices. I ultimately argue that modeling play, originally outside of the boundary of deductive, positivist science, is now an accepted mode of inductive reasoning in these related chemical fields.


epistemology; manipulative models; materiality; toys in science

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TEORIE VĚDY / THEORY OF SCIENCE – journal for interdisciplinary studies of science is published twice a year by the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences (Centre for Science, Technology, and Society Studies). ISSN 1210-0250 (Print) ISSN 1804-6347 (Online) MK ČR E 18677 web: /// email: