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This paper studies the semiotic, epistemological and historical aspects of Berzelian formulas in early nineteenth-century organic chemistry. I argue that Berzelian formulas were enormously productive ‘paper tools’ for representing chemical reactions of organic substances, and for creating different pathways of reactions. Moreover, my analysis of Jean Dumas's application of Berzelian formulas to model the creation of chloral from alcohol and chlorine exemplifies the role played by chemical formulas in conceptual development (the concept of substitution). Studying the dialectic of chemists' collectively shared goals and tools, I argue that paper tools, like laboratory instruments, are resources whose possibilities are not exhausted by scientists' attempts to achieve existing goals, but rather whose applications generate new goals. The term ‘paper tools’ is introduced to emphasize that the pragmatic and syntactic aspects of symbol systems are fully comparable to physical laboratory tools.