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General Chemisty by H. G. Deming

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 7, 2011

As I was looking through my library, searching for a reference on chemistry, I came across this book: General Chemistry, 5th ed., by Horace G. Deming. The first edition was copyrighted in 1923, and this edition is copyrighted 1944 (though this particular book is from the fifth printing–October 1945). I skimmed through it a bit, and it seems like a really excellent book–better, anyway, than the chemistry books I had in school.

I’ve since read the first chapter, and I’m reminded why I like old books so well–the language used in modern books is so boring by comparison. For instance, Deming defines’ metallurgy as “the art or science of winning metals from their ores.” Of course, much of the ‘interesting’ word choice is due to simple shifts in language, and wouldn’t have been especially unusual at the time, but even so, older books often had some character not present in modern books; authors often wrote rather poetically, compared to the much simpler prose of modern books, devoid of ‘needless’ complexity of language. And, I find that language aside, there are many times interesting comments from the authors. For example, at the end of the first chapter (of fifty), “What Chemistry Is About”, Deming writes:

Thus, for those of us who make only a brief study of chemistry, the benefits to be expected are of an indirect nature. Increased capacity for enjoyment, a livelier interest in the world in which we live, a more intelligent attitude toward the great questions of the day–these are the by-products of a well-balanced education, including chemistry in its proper relation to other studies.

I would not expect such an aside in any modern chemistry textbook. Perhaps, for most students, it would not be a useful thing to say, but I would hope that some would have their fires of interest stoked by this comment. It’s a very optimistic view of the value of education, but I do not think optimism is a vice. And, of course, if I did not agree with the sentiment, I certainly wouldn’t have begun such an ambitious project as I have, to read many of the more important works of the Western canon. Naturally, ensuring I have a solid grounding in the sciences goes hand in hand with that.

So, I’ve set out a plan to read this within the next few months. Even reading quite slowly, at should finish the book in at most 90 days, and I don’t expect to actually take that long–the book is not quite 700 pages, counting the appendix. Of course, I shan’t be reading at quite the pace I might read some random novel, so I don’t expect to finish in a day or two, either; I must take care to read the book thoroughly, and not merely let the words pass from the pages to my eyes without continuing on to my brain.

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2 Responses to “General Chemisty by H. G. Deming”

  1. Galen Deming Emery said

    So, interestingly enough.. that book was written by my Great Grandfather. I’m curious to know what you think about it.

    • Tracy Poff said

      It’s a really interesting book, and quite different from the more modern chemistry books I’ve seen. For example, the chapter on combustion contains lots of details about how to extinguish fires, describing the operation of various fire extinguishers and the composition of the chemicals they contain. It also has a very nice section that describes how combustion occurs in a furnace, and what considerations there are for ensuring efficient burning. Extremely cool, and definitely unlike other textbooks I’ve seen.

      It’s also interesting because it’s so old, and techniques have changed so much. There are little things, like the suggestion that multiplication and division be performed with logarithms, since calculators were a ways off, and bigger things, like the rather different way molecules are described–rather than being described solely as consisting of X atoms of some element and Y atoms of another, in a certain configuration, as modern books do, this book describes them as consisting of certain weights of elementary substances–a difference motivated, I guess, by the experimental techniques used at the time for identifying the composition of compounds.

      I’m quite glad I’ve been reading it. I’m a bit behind the schedule I set, I’m afraid–I read a contemporary review of the book which indicated certain problems with the selection of material and the presentation of some topics, which induced me to slow down my reading while searching for another book, but even if there are such problems, I still think it’s worth reading.

      It is my intention to write a fuller review of the book when I’ve finished it, so if you’re interested in reading that, you’ll need to wait another month or two. I hope this can satisfy your curiosity, for now.

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