Sept/Oct 2008


Migration and movement of scholars

By F. Habashi

A study in the history of diffusion of knowledge: Part 6

The beginning of the chemical and metallurgical industries in Britain

Because the chemical and metallurgical industries are closely related, the teaching of chemistry deeply impacted the teaching of mining and metallurgy in England. Prince Albert, who in 1840 had married Queen Victoria, actively promoted scientific education in England. He won several British landowners and industrialists over to the cause of a College of Chemistry. The Prince, of German origins himself, wanted to model his college on Justus von Liebig’s laboratory, a famous German chemical education centre. He personally negotiated the hiring of August von Hofmann (1818-1892) with the King of Prussia.

Prince Albert invited Liebig to London and had one of his former students, Lyon Playfair, serve as his guide. Playfair translated Liebig’s work into English and became the first professor of chemistry when the Royal School of Mines was founded in 1863 in London. In 1845, the Royal College of Chemistry was opened, with Hofmann, another Liebig student, as its first director. This was the first English institution to systematically teach chemistry.

Hofmann’s enthusiasm attracted to the college many English youths interested in applied chemistry. Alongside teaching, Hofmann conducted research on coal tar, continuing the four years’ work he had previously done with Liebig. In 1851, Prince Albert sponsored the foundation of the Geological Surveys to develop the mineral riches of Britain and her colonies. This led to the foundation of the Government School of Mining and Science Applied to the Arts. The new school was housed with the Geological Surveys at the Museum of Practical Geology, also opened in 1851. Prominent Surveys’ officials taught at the school.

In 1853, William Henry Perkin (1838-1907), a student of Hofmann’s at the Royal College of Chemistry, synthesised mauvein, the first artificial dye, initiating the science of synthetic dyes. Another Hofmann student, Peter Griess (1829-1888), left Germany for England in 1858. Studying the action of nitrous acid on amines, he discovered the diazotization process for making azo dyes. Hofmann succeeded Playfair at the Metropolitan School of Science and Industry in 1856, where he stayed until 1863 when he moved to the University of Berlin, becoming one of the founders of the German Chemical Society.

Among the numerous German chemists who moved to England during this period were Carl Schorlemmer (1834-1892), Ivan Levinstein (1845-1916) and Ludwig Mond (1839-1909). Schorlemmer came to Manchester in 1861 to work with Henry Roscoe, who had studied with him under Bunsen at Heidelberg. Together, they wrote a multi-volume Treatise on Chemistry comprising three volumes on inorganic chemistry and seven on organic chemistry. Levinstein arrived at the age of 19 and in 1865 founded a company in Blackley, near Manchester, for the manufacture of aniline dyes. This later became the British Dyestuff Corporation, the founding company of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). Mond came to England in 1862 and founded a company in Manchester which later became part of ICI for the manufacture of soda and other inorganic compounds. He also invented, with Austrian emigrant Carl Langer, the carbonyl process for refining nickel. His son, Robert Mond (1867-1938), was director of the International Nickel Company (Inco).

There were other German chemists who went to England but later returned to Germany. Friedrich Accum (1769-1838), a famed author of numerous books on practical chemistry, went to England in 1793 to teach chemistry and physics at the Surrey Institute. He worked first at Chartered Gaslight and Coke in London, then as a librarian at the Royal Institution before returning to Berlin in 1822 to teach at the newly founded trade school. Auguste Kekulé, who eventually returned to Germany, discovered the structure of benzene in 1860 while in London. In 1863, Wilhelm Meister founded Farbwerke Hoechst and in 1868, Heinrich Caro joined BASF, becoming its first technical director.

In 1863, Hofmann returned home to a professorship at the University of Berlin. This coincided with the beginning of the German dyestuff industry and the founding of Bayer, Hoechst and Kalle in 1863, Badische Anilin- und Sodafabrick (later, BASF) in 1865, and Aktiengesellschaft fur Anilinfabrikationen (later, AGFA) in 1867.

Although the synthetic dye industry began in England, the British Government did little to support it. Britain already had vast natural resources in the colonies and the prospects of synthetic chemicals seemed dim. Also, the fact that many little-trained inventors had driven England’s remarkable Industrial Revolution, had led to the belief that theoretical training was not essential to the development of revolutionary technologies. Consequently, the German industry, with its greater impetus on formal technical education, outpaced its British counterpart.

In 1843, the German engineer Wilhelm Siemens (1825-1883) built furnaces for the English glass industry and later, in 1862, for steelmaking. He invented the regenerative system for furnaces and, in 1878, pioneered the use of electric arcs for smelting metal in closed hearths. He was later knighted.

England was a popular destination for many German emigrants in Hanover because George Lewis (1660-1727), great grandson of James I of England, was born in Hanover. In 1714, on the death of Queen Anne, he became George I, King of England. Consequently, the duchy of Hanover belonged to the kings of England. George I lived in Hanover, spoke no English, and visited England only once. He was succeeded in 1727 by his son George II, also born in Hanover. It was during his rule that New France was conquered and India became part of the British Empire.

One distinguished Hanover immigrant was Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel (1738-1822) who discovered Uranus. His son, John Friedrich Herschel (1792-1871), also made important astronomical discoveries and built an observatory near Cape Town. In 1850, he became Master of the Mint in London.

The movement of scientists in recent times

Jacobus van’t Hoff (1852-1911) was born in Rotterdam and studied in Germany and France before returning to the University of Utrecht to obtain his doctorate in 1874. In the meantime, he had published an important paper postulating a tetrahedral structure for the carbon atom. In 1878, he was appointed professor of chemistry, mineralogy and geol­ogy at the University of Amsterdam, where he wrote the first book on chemical kinetics. In 1896, he moved to the University of Berlin, and in 1901, was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932), born in Riga, Latvia, studied at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia). He obtained his doctorate in chemistry in 1878. He was appointed professor of chemistry at the Riga Polytechnic Institute in 1881 and in 1887 moved to the University of Leipzig. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1909 for his contribution to the theory of electrolytic solu­tions and to thermodynamics.

Svante August Arrhenius (1859-1927) studied at Uppsala in Stockholm, and at Riga with Wilhelm Ostwald. He then worked in Germany and in Amsterdam with van’t Hoff. In 1891, he was appointed lecturer and in 1895, professor of physics at the Technical University in Stockholm. He was director of the Nobel Institute at Stockholm from 1905 until his death. Best known for his ionization theory of solutions, Arrhenius won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903.

William Henry Bragg (1862-1942), edu­cated at Cambridge, became professor of mathematics at Adelaide in South Australia. In 1909, he returned to Leeds and in 1915, became professor of physics at London University. His son, William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971), born in Adelaide, shared the Nobel Prize with his father in 1915. Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), born in New Zea­land, was a research student at Cambridge University and, later, professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal (where he worked on radioactivity) and the universities of Man­chester and Cambridge. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908.

Vladimir Ipatieff (1867-1952), born in Mos­cow, studied at the Artillery Academy in Saint Petersburg, becoming professor there after graduation in 1892. He emi­grated to the United States in 1931 to direct research at Uni­versal Oil Products in Chicago. His work on the precipitation of metals from aqueous solutions by hydrogen was applied in Canada 50 years later to produce metallic nickel and cobalt.

In 1879, the young Joseph Mellor (1869-1938) moved with his family from England to New Zealand. His working-class background ruled out any thoughts of higher education. Aged 13, he left school to take employment in boot manufacturing. In the evenings, however, he read second-hand or borrowed books. Mellor’s remarkable efforts at self-education came to the attention of the director of the local technical school, who arranged for him to attend classes at the University of Otago in Dunedin. In 1898, he graduated with first-class honours and won a scholarship to study in Manchester, England. Mellor published five books on inorganic chemistry (1912-30) and numerous pioneering texts on mathematics for chemists (1902), chemical kinetics (1904), quantitative chemical analysis (1914), clay and pottery (1914) and metallography (1916). His major work, however, is a monumental 16-volume, 15,320-page Comprehensive Treatise on Theoretical and Inorganic Chemistry, published between 1927 and 1937.

Frederick Soddy (1877-1956) was born in East­bourne, England. He worked with Rutherford at McGill in Montreal and with Ramsay in London. In 1914, he became professor of chemistry at Aberdeen and in 1919, at Oxford. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1921 for his work on isotopes. Hans Geiger (1882-1945), born in Neustadt a.d. Haardt in Germany, worked with Rutherford in Manches­ter. In 1925, he was appointed at the Berlin Technical Institute, where he invented the eponymous counter for measuring radioactivity.

Otto Hahn (1879-1968) was born in Frankfurt am Main in Ger­many. He obtained a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Marburg in 1901. He left for England in 1904 to work with William Ramsay at University College. There, in 1905, he discovered radiothorium (an isotope of thorium). Later that year, he left to work with Ernest Rutherford in Montreal, where, in 1906, he discovered radioac­tinium (another thorium isotope). He then returned home to work at the University of Berlin. In 1907, he discovered mesothorium (a radium isotope). That year, Lise Meitner joined his labora­tory. In 1918, with Meitner, he discovered proto-actinium (protoactinium). In 1933, he was visiting professor at Cornell University. On returning to Berlin, he moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Insti­tute for Chemistry.

Between 1935 and 1938, Hahn, Meitner and Strassmann repeated Fermi’s experiments (bombarding uranium with neutrons). They confirmed the transuranium element and believed they had dis­covered several isotopes of radium. In 1939, Hahn and Strassmann announced the “bursting” of uranium atoms. In 1945, Hahn was arrested, along with several colleagues, by the allied forces and interned near Cambridge, England. He was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry during his internment. In 1946, he returned to West Germany to become president of the Kaiser Wil­helm Society, which changed its name in 1948 to the Max Planck Society in honour of the deceased scientist.

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