Sir Eric Keightley Rideal

Sir Eric Rideal was one of the founders of catalysis and gave his name to the Eley Rideal mechanism. He was also famous for his work at the Colloid Science Laboratory which he set up in Cambridge University in the 1930s.

Born in 1890, he was closely influenced by his father, Samuel, who was a well known consultant chemist of his day. The young Eric got a break of his own when Rideal senior was invited to fix the water supplies in Guayaquil, Ecuador, but as Eric told colleagues, 'he preferred to send sonny boy'.

Rideal was first involved in surface chemistry during the First World War when he worked on catalysts for the Haber process for the production of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, and for the selective oxidation of carbon monoxide in mixtures of CO and hydrogen. Together with his colleague HS Taylor, he wrote the seminal Catalysis in Theory and Practice, the first of a stream of publications.

After the war he went to the US as visiting professor at the University of Illinois, where he disregarded the smoking ban in place, saying 'no smoking, no Rideal'. He also made sure all the experiments he conducted during lectures used smoke.

On his way back from the US, he shared a cabin with an American writer, Schuyler Brinckerhof Jackson, and the two spent most of the voyage in conversation. Jackson's sister Peggy got fed up with being ignored and asked why she was not introduced. Jackson retorted: 'You don't think he would be interested in you, do you?' They married the next year.

Rideal spent several years at Cambridge and evidently regretted leaving, despite enjoying great success at Kings College London and the Royal Institution.

According to a report in Chemistry & Industry published after his death in 1974, Rideal was always full of ideas, even if only ten per cent were good ones. He was acclaimed as being the most distinguished professor at Kings for 140 years, though it was said his lectures were only useful to the best students as they had little bearing on the exams he set, and he was seldom aware which year he was lecturing to.

Rideal also made some intriguing contributions outside academia. He was knighted for his service on various Ministry of Supply committees during the Second World War. In his work on the Electrical Research Association Committee he supported FT Bacon whose hydrogen–oxygen fuel cell was later used in the Apollo spacecraft.

Image: National Portrait Gallery by Hills & Saunders, circa 1922, (NPG x76996), (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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