Napoleon’s Buttons: Teaching the Role of Chemistry in History

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Journal of Chemical Education


The nonscience majors course described here employs the book titled Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History as its key pedagogical tool. The book is an engaging account of 17 molecules or groups of molecules that have, like the tin buttons worn by Napoleon and his army, greatly influenced the course of history. Napoleon's Buttons frequently discusses how slight variations in the structure of a molecule can have a large impact on its properties. This theme provides the basis for both the classroom and laboratory components of the course. In addition, the major goal of the course is the compilation of our class book (modeled after Napoleon's Buttons), with each student contributing a specific molecule as a chapter. This unique approach encourages students to think in depth about how an individual molecule can shape historical events and how these events can, in turn, have an impact on the field of chemistry. Therefore the focus of this course is on the role of chemistry in history rather than on the history of chemistry. Students expressed that the project fostered camaraderie and the course helped them to become more interested in the role of chemistry in their lives.


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