Thomas Jefferson's Lost Chemistry Lab Found
The 200-year-old chemical hearth was preserved by accident
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 17, 2015 5:05 PM CDT
Workers discovered a rare 200-year-old chemistry hearth during renovations of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.   (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

(Newser) – A worker renovating the Rotunda at the University of Virginia made an unexpected discovery when he crawled through a hole in the wall: part of a chemistry lab partly designed by Thomas Jefferson nearly 200 years ago, the Charlottesville Newsplex reports. The brick chemical hearth—one of the only remaining in the world—had been accidentally preserved since being walled off in the 1840s. "Just because of luck and geometry of the building, because it was bricked up, it survived the major fire in 1895," project manager Matt Schiedt says. "It survived the major renovation in the 1970s, mostly because people didn't know it was there." According to the Christian Science Monitor, the hearth could give new insight into how chemistry was taught when it was built in the 1820s.

One University of Virginia official thinks Jefferson, who founded the school, built the lab for John Emmet, its first professor of natural history, the Dispatch Tribunal reports. According to the Monitor, Jefferson specified the size and location of the lab and worked with Emmet to equip it. The main chemical hearth had two fireboxes, one for wood and one for coal, where the professor would do his demonstrations. Students would work at five stations cut into stone countertops, the Dispatch Tribunal reports. "For the professor of chemistry, such experiments as require the use of furnaces, cannot be exhibited in his ordinary lecturing room," Jefferson wrote in an 1823 letter. "We therefore prepare the rooms ... for furnaces, stoves, etc." The hearth will be preserved in the university's visitor center. (Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the Founding Fathers really liked to drink.)