Before Powerpoint and Keynote appropriated the term “slide” to the flashy, digital rectangles that we dread in Monday morning lecture, slides were actual panes made out of plastic and glass. Professors would insert them into a slide projector and give their lectures.
One can imagine that two or three lectures a week with dozens of slides for each lecture would create a vast number of these small plastic rectangles. This summer, haphazard boxes full of slides arrived and were catalogued by interns Alona R. Bach ‘16 and Melissa C. Rodman ’18, an active Crimson news and arts writer, at the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. CHSI, located in the Science Center and curated by Dr. Sara Schechner, contains over 20,000 objects, including old lecture slides. Eventually, most the 974 newly arrived and jumbled slides were attributed to professor Eugene G. Rochow. The slides not only opened a window to learning chemistry in the mid‐1900s, but also revealed a dynamic, funny, and bold professor.
Before joining the Harvard faculty in 1948, Rochow was a key member of the team at General Electric who worked with silicones, and especially stick‐resistant plastics. One of his primary contributions was the advancement of water repellent windshields, especially airplane windshields. He also developed non‐adhesive silicone used in the tubing for blood transfusions. This non‐adhesive tubing allowed transfusions to be more efficient and useful.
At Harvard, Rochow taught Chemistry 1. In 1961, in an article recommending courses, The Crimson referred to his class as “Black Magic 1” and described it as the “most engaging show since Merlin.” The entertainment factor and the dynamic of his class can be further explained by two slides, both picturing cut‐out Valentine’s Day hearts, with the following messages: 1. “The Chemistry of Explosions,” 2. “Professor Rochow, HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY! ‐‐ To a man who, more than any other, has sent many a heart into skipping a beat and fluttering for days. With appreciation, the Cliffe Contingent.”
But Rochow was more than an entertaining professor of chemistry. He was vocal about political matters with regard to the Cold War and incorporated current events into his lectures. In several Crimson articles, Rochow expressed his belief that space exploration was an important alternative to direct war with the Soviet Union. In the same article, he was also vocal about his desire that the UN have more centralized power and uphold stricter laws relating to Atomic testing. As a chemist, he lectured and spoke about his concerns regarding the safety of nuclear weapons and scientists’ ability to use them without ever testing them. The nuclear arms race was an important aspect of the Cold War, which lasted for the entirety of Rochow’s tenure as a professor at Harvard. He was an expert on the topic, and the slides reveal that he included current events like the success of Enterprise, the first U.S. aircraft carrier powered by nuclear power, as well as explanations of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” which were the bombs used in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
Rochow’s political statements were not limited to the global competition in the Cold War. In 1952, amidst the U.S. Steelworkers’ strike, Rochow made 12 pounds of actual steel from the front of his class. As the molten lava flowed from the lectern Rochow said, “somebody has to do it” in reference to the Steelworkers’ Strike. Even in the current age of students’ who are often jaded by flashy demonstrations, producing molten steel at the front of the classroom would be fairly remarkable.
In a lecture published by the Journal of Chemical Education in 1985, Rochow discusses the professors who were influential in his life. He mentions a professor Dennis who taught by demonstration and a professor Stock for whom he worked as a personal assistant. The point of this lecture was to advise students to make good choices, to choose their fields, their mentors, and their interests wisely.
Information regarding slides and a little more provided by Alona R. Bach ‘16 and Melissa C. Rodman ‘18, interns at the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments through the Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program.