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  • Mid-Century Molecular: The Material Culture of X-ray Crystallographic Visualisation across Postwar British Science and Industrial Design

Candela, Emily, 2015, Thesis, Mid-Century Molecular: The Material Culture of X-ray Crystallographic Visualisation across Postwar British Science and Industrial Design PhD thesis, Royal College of Art in collaboration with the Science Museum.

Abstract or Description:

This thesis investigates the use and significance of X-ray crystallographic visualisations of molecular structures in postwar British material culture across scientific practice and industrial design. It is based on research into artefacts from three areas: X-ray crystallographers’ postwar practices of visualising molecular structures using models and diagrams; the Festival Pattern Group scheme for the 1951 Festival of Britain, in which crystallographic visualisations formed the aesthetic basis of patterns for domestic objects; and postwar furnishings with a ‘ball-and-rod’ form and construction reminiscent of those of molecular models.
A key component of the project is methodological. The research brings together subjects, themes and questions traditionally covered separately by two disciplines, the history of design and history of science. This focus necessitated developing an interdisciplinary set of methods, which results in the reassessment of disciplinary borders and productive cross-disciplinary methodological applications. This thesis also identifies new territory for shared methods: it employs network models to examine cross-disciplinary interaction between practitioners in crystallography and design, and a biographical approach to designed objects that over time became mediators of historical narratives about science. Artefact-based, archival and oral interviewing methods illuminate the production, use and circulation of the objects examined in this research.
This interdisciplinary approach underpins the generation of new historical narratives in this thesis. It revises existing histories of the cultural transmissions between X-ray crystallography and the production and reception of designed objects in postwar Britain. I argue that these transmissions were more complex than has been acknowledged by historians: they were contingent upon postwar scientific and design practices, material conditions in postwar Britain and the dynamics of historical memory, both scholarly and popular.
This thesis comprises four chapters. Chapter one explores X-ray crystallographers’ visualisation practices, conceived here as a form of craft. Chapter two builds on this, demonstrating that the Festival Pattern Group witnesses the encounter between crystallographic practice, design practice and aesthetic ideologies operating within social networks associated with postwar modernisms. Chapters three and four focus on ball-and-rod furnishings in postwar and present-day Britain, respectively. I contend that strong relationships between these designed objects and crystallographic visualisations, for example the appellation ‘atomic design’, have been largely realised through historical narratives active today in the consumption of ‘retro’ and ‘mid-century modern’ artefacts. The attention to contemporary historical narratives necessitates this dual historical focus: the research is rooted in the period from the end of the Second World War until the early 1960s, but extends to the history of now.
This thesis responds to the need for practical research on methods for studying cross-disciplinary interactions and their histories. It reveals the effects of submitting historical subjects that are situated on disciplinary boundaries to interdisciplinary interpretation. Old models, such as that of unidirectional
‘influence’, subside and the resulting picture is a refracted one: this study demonstrates that the material form and meaning of crystallographic visualisations, within scientific practice and across their use and echoes in designed objects, are multiple and contingent.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Other > Physical Sciences > F900 Others in Physical Sciences
Creative Arts and Design > W200 Design studies
Creative Arts and Design > W200 Design studies > W240 Industrial/Product Design
School or Centre: School of Humanities
Funders: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Date Deposited: 10 May 2016 10:13
Last Modified: 13 Sep 2016 09:00
URI: http://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/1773

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