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April 1801

(p.1) Prologue
Pure Intelligence
Melvyn C. Usselman
University of Chicago Press

This Prologue presents a brief, slightly dramatized account of William Hyde Wollaston’s first successful consolidation of powdered platinum into a malleable solid in April, 1801. The preparation of one small ingot of platinum is a milestone in the history of powder metallurgy, and marks the beginning of the modern platinum industry. The description of the laboratory procedure is based on notebook and published accounts, together with the author’s best guess of what unknown circumstances might have prevailed. The imagined drama of the event is then used as a springboard to discuss an historian’s need to separate speculation from fact, to place such ‘eureka moments’ into appropriate perspective, to distinguish interpretations based on presentism from those situated in contemporary beliefs, to avoid over-simplification and to provide a credible explanation of the value placed on noteworthy scientific discoveries. Wollaston’s life and science allow one to explore all these issues.

Keywords:   William Hyde Wollaston, powder metallurgy, malleable platinum, eureka moments, presentism, scientific discovery, historiography

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