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A perfumer from Ancient Babylon named Tapputi-Belatekallim is possibly history's first recorded chemist, and some of the techniques she used are still in practice today.

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The present-day discipline of chemistry  dates back to the 17th or 18th century,   but the methods chemists use are  actually  a lot older than that.  And one of the earliest mentions  of chemical techniques comes from  .

Ancient Babylon, in a tablet written about a woman   named Tapputi-Belatekallim -- making her  possibly history’s first recorded chemist.  Now because she lived so long ago,   records of her life are a little  sparse, but we do know a few things.  We know that she was a Babylonian noblewoman  who lived sometime around 1200 BCE.   She worked as a perfumer, and was known  for making perfumes of exceptional quality. Perfume doesn’t seem scientific at first glance,   but making good perfumes is a very  technical process.

In Ancient Babylon,   perfumes and other fragrant substances  were held in very high regard.  At the time, perfumes had four main  uses. They were used for cosmetics,   just as they are today, but they were  also for ritual and magical purposes.  And they were also used as medicine.  The Babylonians used essential oils  and salves to treat infections,   so an early perfumer would also have  been kind of like a pharmacist.  This means that a good perfumer would be  highly prized, and from Tapputi’s name,   we can tell that she was  well-regarded in society.  The name Belatekallim means ‘overseer’ or  ‘head of household’, and historians say   that this name means that Tapputi was likely  in charge of perfumery in the royal court.  And her importance likely derived  from the quality of her perfumes.  At the time, ancient perfume makers usually  made their perfumes by adding fragrances to   oils and fats. These were heavy salves that  often didn’t hold their scent for very long.  The perfumers of ancient Babylon, however,  combined multiple scents into one perfume   and used solvents to create the final product.  This meant that her perfumes were probably   alcohol-based, and once applied, the solvent  would evaporate, leaving only the scent behind.

If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because  this is very similar to modern perfumes,   which are mostly ethyl alcohol  with essential oils as fragrances.  In fact, Tapputi may have had to distill  her own alcohol to make her perfumes.  Records of her life are also the first historical  references to the process of distillation.  Distillation, a chemical procedure used to  separate liquids that have two different   boiling points, uses a device called a  still. This can be used to purify alcohol,   which is why distilled spirits  are stronger than wine or beer.  But it can also be used to  separate other solutions.  During distillation, a solution of multiple  liquids is heated until it starts to boil.   Because the liquids have different boiling points,   the vapors are mostly made up of the  compound with the lowest boiling point.  These vapors travel through a  condenser, which is cooled with water,   and the vapors condense back into liquid. The  liquid is collected, and the distillation step   can be repeated as necessary to purify  whatever it is you’re trying to purify.

Distillation is one of the most basic chemistry  techniques, and it is still used a lot.  The fact that we know Tapputi developed her own  chemical methods, and used equipment like a still,   in 1200 BCE makes her the first  recorded chemical engineer.  But distillation isn’t all it takes to  make perfume. That gives you alcohol for   the solvent, but you still need the smelly parts. Tapputi used a technique called cold enfleurage  to extract scents, which is where a fat,   like lard or tallow, is infused with a scent from  fragrant plants over the course of a few days.  Fragrant compounds are often soluble  in oils, so they would diffuse   from the plant into the fat and remain  there after the plant material was removed.

Archaeologists believe the Babylonians may also  have used sublimation to create their perfumes.   That’s a chemical process where  fragrant compounds were extracted   from their source by converting  them from solid form into a gas.  The gaseous compounds were then  condensed into a purified liquid,   which lets you keep all the fragrant parts while  throwing away the other, non-fragrant compounds.  This was a long, involved process,   with recipes taking at least a week  to complete, and possibly longer.  This means that ancient perfumers would have  needed considerable technical expertise.  One of the records Tapputi left behind is a recipe  for a salve she made for the Babylonian king,   an ointment that contained water, flowers, oil,  and calamus. The ointment was probably scented   using techniques like these.     It’s worth noting that Tapputi wasn’t  the only woman in her field at the time.   The texts mention another woman in the field,  also considered an authority on perfuming.  We know her as Ninu, though that was  only part of her name. Unfortunately,   because the record is fragmentary,  her full name is lost to history.  We can’t really know what life was  like for someone who lived so long ago,   and calling Tapputi “the first chemical  engineer” is ultimately a modern interpretation.

But we know that Tapputi and Ninu were two  women working in a highly technical field,   using methods and equipment still  relevant today, and that Tapputi herself   was considered a leading figure in her profession. And the fact that their work is  remembered nearly three and a half   millennia later makes them  chemists worth talking about. Thanks for watching this episode  of SciShow, and thanks, as always,   to the patrons who helped make it happen.

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