Governing Fluids: Hydrometers, Salpeter and Empire in the Early Nineteenth Century World

Weber, A. (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


The history of hydrometers is an ideal vehicle to shed fresh light on the historical relationship between chemistry and empire in the early nineteenth century world. While manufacturers of chemical substances and drugs relied on the instrument to guarantee their businesses’ productivity, chemists and administrators promoted the instrument as tool to improve colonial administrations all over the world. In order to study some aspects of the instrument’s global career, this paper examines the history of hydrometers as they were used in the early nineteenth century Dutch empire in Europe and Southeast Asia. Special attention is given to hydrometers which were introduced in a salpeter manufacture in Gresik, in the eastern part of Java, and in pharmaceutical context. Taken together this paper makes two interconnected points: First, the paper gives insight in material aspects of colonial administrations, an aspect which historians usually neglect. Second, the paper argues that hydrometers used in Dutch colonial context formed part of a much broader ‘gravimetric culture’ which can best be studied by a careful contextualization of different types of instruments (with a special focus on their design, calibration, and use) not only in Asia but also in other parts of the world.
Period31 Jul 2019
Event title12th International Conference on the History of Chemistry 2019: null
Event typeConference
Conference number12
LocationMaastricht, Netherlands
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • history of chemistry
  • hydrometers
  • history of science
  • science and empire
  • chemistry and empire