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Saturday, 22 March 2014


The German chemist Johann Friedrich Böttger was the first European to discover how to make porcelain in 1708.

In 1774 Joseph Priestley a Chemist and a Presbyterian Minister, discovered a colorless, odourless, tasteless, gaseous element by heating mercuric oxide using the sun's rays - it was oxygen.

The transformation of soapmaking from a handicraft to an industry was aided by French chemist, Nicholas Leblanc's discovery in 1791 of a way of manufacturing soda ash from common salt. The chemist devised his method of producing the alkali to win a prize offered sixteen years previously by the French Academy of Sciences, but the Revolutionary government merely granted him a patent.

Modern soapmaking was born some 20 years later with the discovery by Michel Eugene Chevreul, another French chemist, of the nature and relationship of fats, glycerine and fatty acids. His studies established the basis for both fat and soap chemistry.

Bleaching powder was introduced in 1799 by the Scottish chemist Charles Tennant. It was easier and safer to use on fabrics than the chlorine gas it replaced.

The 24 year-old German analytical chemist Friedrich Runge started conducting chemical experiments at a young age. In 1819  the writer Johann Goethe encouraged him to analyze coffee. Arising from these investigations he isolated a major purine alkaloid found in coffee- caffeine.

In 1823 the Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh (1766-1843) patented the waterproof cloth he used to make raincoats, after experimenting with waste rubber products from Glasgow’s new gas works. He was anxious to protect the secret of his new waterproof cloth so he chose Highland workers to work in his Glasgow factory as they only spoke Gaelic. His novel mackintoshes immediately proved to be a hit though at first the rubbery substance became brittle and stiff in extremely cold weather.

November 27, 1826, is said to be the date on which Stockholm-based chemist John Walker accidentally invented matches that could be lit by friction.  He discovered them when trying to rub off some chemicals that had solidified on the end of a stick he had been using to stir them.

The American chemist, Samuel Guthrie, German chemist Justus von Liebig and French chemist Eugene Soubeiran  produced developed chloroform almost simultaneously.

The German chemist Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf von Baeyer succeeded in 1864 in synthesising a new organic compound. The date, December 4th coincided with the feast of Saint Barbara, and so the German name given to the substance was called “Barbitursäure” or barbituric acid.

A new cooking fat was created in 1869 by the French Province chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès. He invented it in response to a commission by the Emperor Louis Napoleon III for the production of a cooking fat for the French navy that would be cheap and would keep well. To formulate his entry, Mège-Mouriès used  margaric acid, a fatty acid component, that was isolated by the Frenchman hence its name – margarine.

For a long time the prevailing belief was that disease was spread by poisonous vapours called “miasmas.” It was the French chemist Louis Pasteur who demonstrated that infection is carried by germs.

Louis Pasteur used an improvised lab in the back room of a cafe in Arbois for his pioneering work on pasteurization.

Vaseline Robert Cheseborough, a 22-year-old chemist working in the oil industry in Titusville, Pennsylvania noticed that oil field laborers were treating scratches, cuts and burns with an oil residue that accumulated on the rods of drilling rigs. These riggers were finding it helped their wounds to heal faster. Chesebrough bottled the petroleum jelly and took it back to his office where he tested it on himself. The chemist gave out free samples of his “wonder jelly” in New York State from a horse and cart and by 1870 he had twelve wagons distributing the product, under the trade name Vaseline, across the state.

The famous Russian composer Aleksandr Borodin was also a respected chemistry professor in St. Petersburg.

The word “tabloid” for a non “broadsheet” newspaper written in a downmarket, popular style was coined in the 1880s by the chemist Sir Henry Wellcome to describe a small new tablet he had invented. In a short space of time it came to be applied to anything that was miniature.

The first artificial sweetener, a synthetic substance made from coal tar was discovered in 1880 at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore by the German chemist Constantin Fahlberg. Whilst he was working on the coal tar derivative toluene, Fahlberg noticed an unaccountable sweet taste to his food and found that this sweetness was present on his hands and arms, despite his having washed thoroughly after leaving the laboratory. The chemist discovered the source of this sweetness after checking over his laboratory apparatus with taste tests. Dr. Fahlberg patented the discovery three years later, which he called saccharin, from the Latin word “saccharum” for sugar.

In turn-of-the 20th century Germany, chemist Felix Hoffman concocted a less acidic formula to ease his father’s arthritis. He perfected the remedy and marketed it under the trade name Aspirin

The founder of the Nobel prize, Alfred Nobel, was a Swedish chemist and millionaire. He invented dynamite and established almost 100 arms factories.

The thermos flask was invented in 1904 by Sir James Dewar, an eminent professor of chemistry at Cambridge and leading light of the Royal Institution. Dewar didn’t invent it to keep tea hot on picnics (that was a happy by-product), but to help his experiments on cooling gases, like air and oxygen, to such low temperatures that they would liquefy.

The first mass produced instant coffee was the invention of George Constant Washington, an English chemist living in Guatemala. In 1906, while waiting for his wife one day to join him in the garden for coffee, he observed dried coffee on the spout of the silver coffeepot. Intrigued he started experimenting, which lead to his discovery of easily dissolving coffee.

A Parisian chemist Eugene Schueller, founded the company L'Oreal in 1907 to market a dye he'd invented to cover gray hair with natural-looking colors in a permanent process.

The founder of L'Oreal, chemist Eugene Schueller, invented the first sunscreen in 1936.

It was Swiss chemist Jacques Edwin Brandenberger who invented cellophane, in 1908

Though his struggles with mental illness made him initially reject a lucrative job with DuPont, chemist Wallace Carothers accepted the offer in the late 1920s and enjoyed much success there. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the invention of nylon, which rapidly gained widespread use in an array of products.

In 1931, an American chemist, Lawrence Gelb, introduced the first oil shampoo tint. After eight more years of research, he established the first home purchased hair dye. He named his currently famous company Clairol.

Gerhard Domagk, a German chemist, discovered in 1935 the sulphonamide drug, Sulphanilamide, the first drug to be used for the prevention and cure of bacterial infections.

Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon in 1938 after only two years as a research chemist for Du Pont. The breakthrough led to many new fluorochemical products now widely used in the electronics, plastics, and aerospace industries.

The contraceptive pill was developed by a team headed by Carl Djerassi, a chemist, in 1951, but wasn't marketed in the UK until the early 1960s.

Source Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

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