Blasts from the past: a snapshot of online content in chemistry, ~1994-1998.

With universities around the world having to very rapidly transition to blended learning (a mixture of virtual and face-2-face experiences) with a very large component based on online materials, I thought it might be interesting to try to give one snapshot of when the online experience started to happen in chemistry.

My start point will in fact be 1993, when the method of exposing online content currently in use (the “web”) really got going. Using the HTML language, Web servers started to appear in abundance around that time. By the end of 1993, perhaps 50 Web servers were operational and of course the number started to rise exponentially thereafter, to the point that they must number billions by now. There had of course been online content before then, largely in the form of file downloads using protocols such as FTP or Gopher, but the Web was the first that allowed richly visual content to be immediately presented online in an easily navigable form using hyperlinks. By around 1995, there was sufficient online content that collections of such materials started appearing. Remember, this was still before the days of global search engines such as Google (which in fact appeared around 1996) allowed you to find material. So it was that I too decided then to create a snapshot of what materials there were on the topic of chemistry. My effort occurred from 1994-1998 and it can be found here:

It indeed has not been curated since 1998, and so what is called “link rot” has set in. After >22 years, this is very considerable, as you will no doubt discover for yourselves. There are 48 sites in this collection and although I have not tried them all, I suspect no more than perhaps 10 continue to resolve to content to this day. Much of it relates to university level content, but at least one of our own projects (Virtual Chemistry library, or V-chemlib) was directed at schools and museums (the Science museum in fact).

Even if the main site has not suffered link-rot, the content may well have done. In those days a variety of early techologies were used to animate the content and render it more interactive. One of these was the Chime 3D molecular viewer, which the project above makes use of. That is no longer functional (although with some curation, there is no doubt it could be rescued).

So this exercise is really one which might be called Internet Archeology, of finding artefacts and materials that have been long buried and whose discovery and analysis yields fascinating insights into their own eras. In this case, an era that is only 22-26 years ago! I doubt anyone at the time thought that a mere quarter of a century later, almost entire university courses might be delivered in this way, and for reasons no-one would wish to have experienced.

Volunteers to do so welcome!


One Response to “
Blasts from the past: a snapshot of online content in chemistry, ~1994-1998.

  1. Henry Rzepa says:

    I would add this personal footnote. In 1977, when I first started lecturing to students on the topic of molecular orbital theory, I became aware that one aspect of my course using group theory deserved a “handout”. I used a Gestetner machine to duplicate typed lecture notes and started to hand these out to students (photocopying in its current form was not yet generally available). The practice of giving out “lecture handouts” in that era was relatively rare and complete lecture course notes were probably even rarer. The other types of printed materials in that era tended to be typed problem sheets. When I started delivering a course on Pericyclic reactions in 1978 I would produce a set of these problem sheets once a year, and there is a box somewhere in my office which contains a complete set from 1978-1993, with chemical diagrams produced using Chemdraw from 1985 onwards). From 1994-2014, new problem sheets went online along with the complete lecture notes, where they are still accessible.

    I also note another observation. During the era 1994 to ~2002, much of the online content that appeared was unrestricted; anyone could view it. Since then, with the advent of content management systems such as Blackboard, much has been hidden behind what might be called a paywall, being accessible only to students registered at the hosting university. Times have indeed changed.

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