Chemistry in History



Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Scurvy plagued early sailors, and although many treatments were tried and promoted, a simple cure was masked for centuries behind a series of mistakes and misunderstandings. The

This story begins at sea, long into a voyage after the fresh food stock had long run out and the sailors were left with only grains, hardtack and cured meats to eat. The sailors would become desperate as scurvy began to set in. Sailors were lost to scurvy in vast numbers, with estimates as high as two million lives lost between 1500–1800 AD.

©Shutterstock

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Guest post by Jessica Breen

‘The noblest exercise of the mind within doors, and most befitting a person of quality, is study’ – Ramsay

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jack Dunitz at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Little did I know that he was the academic great-great-grandson of the UK’s first chemistry Nobel Laureate, Sir William Ramsay. After discovering this connection, I decided to delve deeper to see which other chemistry legends Ramsay is connected to.

Ramsay began his career as an organic chemist, but his prominent discoveries were in the field of inorganic chemistry. At the meeting of the British Association in August 1894, Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh both announced the discovery of argon, after independent research. Ramsay then discovered helium in 1895 and systematically researched the missing links in this new group of elements to find neon, krypton, and xenon1. These findings led to Ramsay winning his Nobel prize in 1904 in ‘recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the periodic system’. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Among the many accidental discoveries through the ages is an experiment designed to probe carbon molecules in space, which unearthed a new terrestrial molecule.

Harry Kroto with buckyballs
© Science Photo Library

It all happened in an 11-day whirl, between 1 September 1985, when Harry Kroto first arrived at Rice University, US, and 12 September, when he, along with Richard Smalley and Robert Curl, submitted a paper to Nature: C60 Buckminsterfullerene’. Eleven years later, in 1996, the three were awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry.

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‘The history of science, more than of any other activity, shows men and women of every nation contributing to the common pool of organised knowledge and providing the means for enhancing human welfare.’ – Ronald Nyholm, editorial in Education in Chemistry, vol. 1, issue 1.

50 years ago, the Royal Institute of Chemistry (RIC) announced a new quarterly magazine, with the aim of ‘improving the teaching of chemistry at all levels’. The RIC no longer exists (having merged with the Society for Analytical Chemistry and the Chemical and Faraday Societies to form the Royal Society of Chemistry) but the publication, Education in Chemistry or EiC, is still around to celebrate its golden anniversary.

Having spent the year in dusty archive rooms researching the history of the magazine, editor Karen J Ogilvie and assistant editor David Sait have emerged, blinking, back into the daylight, determined to celebrate in style. As well as planning a calendar of celebration events for those involved in the magazine, they’ve been busy rethinking their online home, and the refreshed and redesigned website launched on 12 November. (more…)

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Guest post by Chemistry World intern Dan Johnson

It has often been said of Franz Schubert, the great Austrian composer, that if the mark of a genius is an early death, then he can be considered a greater genius than Mozart. Mozart died at 35; Schubert at 31. But perhaps we should cast the net wider than music. On this scale of genius cut short, the death of Henry Moseley on 10 August 1915, at the age of only 27, might make his life the most fleetingly brilliant of all. His death is all the more poignant for what he might have achieved. In a few short years he laid out the basis for the modern periodic table, predicted the elements that would fill in the gaps and showed that x-rays could be a supreme analytical tool. Few achieve in a lifetime of research what he achieved in a career of just 40 months.

Henry Moseley in his lab

Henry Moseley in his lab

Moseley, known as Harry to his family, came from strong scientific stock. His father, Henry Nottidge Moseley, was a naturalist and professor at Oxford who journeyed on the Challenger expedition; his grandfather was a conchologist and fellow of the Royal Society. As a child it  seemed that he would follow his father –Harry and his sister scoured the surrounding countryside, cataloguing as much of the native flora and fauna as they could find. (more…)

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At the weekend I was off on a country jaunt to visit family. We went out to a delightful little pile in Wiltshire called Bowood House. However, despite all the science documentaries I’ve watched over the years that covered, among other things, the history of the elements I was taken by complete surprise when I walked into one of the rooms in the house: this was where oxygen was discovered.
Bowood House, Wiltshire

Bowood House, as it turned out, was where Joseph Priestley spent some of the most productive years of his scientific life in a tiny room-cum-lab only a little larger than a child’s bedroom. While working there in 1774, Priestley used a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays on mercury(II) oxide and liberated oxygen from it, naming the gas ‘dephlogisticated air’. This was because the prevailing theory of the time – phlogiston theory – held that substances that could be burned contained the mysterious substance phlogiston, while those that had been burned were dephlogisticated. Priestley was a life-long advocate for phlogiston theory and continued to defend it long after other scientists had concluded it was a dead end. Perhaps giving oxygen a name linking it with phlogiston meant that the theory still held some romantic associations for him. (more…)

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Heading over to Google today (other search engines are available) I noticed the rather intriguing Google Doodle shown above. Now I love the way Google updates it’s logo on specific days, but I have to admit that it seems a bit odd to celebrate the 138th birthday of anyone, after all it’s not much of a round number. (more…)

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Pity the poor French chemist Bernard Courtois. Despite being the discoverer of iodine he has sunk into relative obscurity. And as a result the photograph that many sources acknowledge as being the man himself is, in reality, that of a French railway worker, all thanks to a linguistic confluence.

NOT Bernard Courtois

It appears that what has occurred is a case of mistaken identity that is the result of mistranslation from French into English. The French for railway worker is cheminot, while chemist is chimiste. It just so happens that a railway worker by the name of Courtois, along with his photo, can be found on a genealogy website. This is the likely source of the mix up says Patricia Swain, a chemistry historian and teacher, who has written a short biography of Courtois’ life. She found no photo of him anywhere during her research and thinks it is unlikely that a photo of him exists anywhere.

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It seems the Andean civilisations really were the ancient kings of heavy metal. Not only were they adept at mining and working gold, but they also used vermillion – a pigment based on cinnabar (mercury sulfide) – to decorate ceremonial objects and the bodies of their dead elite.

huancavelica-with-statue-400

An international team of researchers has looked at mercury deposits in lakes around Huancavelica in the Peruvian Andes, home of the largest deposits of mercuric ore in the New World. Unlike studies in the Northern hemisphere, where there is no real evidence of pre-industrial mining of mercury, the team found that Andean cinnabar mining – and the associated mercury pollution – dated back nearly 3000 years to 1400BC. (more…)

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