Sir William Ramsay

Sir William Ramsay K.C.B., F.R.S, - SCI President from 1903 to 1904.

William Ramsay's involvement in the discovery of the noble gases argon, neon, krypton and xenon formed an entirely new group in the periodic table and earned him a Nobel Prize.

Ramsay was born in Glasgow in 1852 and studied there and in Tübingen, Germany, completing a doctorate in organic chemistry and a thesis entitled Investigations in the Toluic and Nitrotoluic Acids. His first academic posts were at the Universities of Glasgow and Bristol, where he conducted research on organic chemistry and gases. He joined SCI at its foundation in 1881. Together with William Shenstone, the Head of Science at Clifton College, he set up and actively promoted the Bristol Scientific Club.

In 1887 Ramsay became Professor of Chemistry at University College London, where he made his most notable discoveries, and his early papers on the oxides of nitrogen were well regarded by his peers. He also became known for his inventive and thorough experimental techniques, especially his methods for determining the molecular weights of substances in the liquid state.

In 1894 Ramsay attended a lecture given by the physicist Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt). Rayleigh had noticed a discrepancy between the density of nitrogen made by chemical synthesis, and nitrogen isolated from the air by removing its other known components. The two collaborated, and some months later Ramsay told Rayleigh he had isolated a previously unknown heavy component of air, which had no obvious chemical reactivity, which he named argon, after the Greek word for inactive.

While investigating for argon in a uranium-bearing mineral, Ramsay found a new element, helium. Since 1868, helium had been known to exist, but only in the sun! This discovery led him to suggest the existence of a new group of elements in the periodic table. With colleagues he then followed this with the discovery of neon, krypton, and xenon, and in 1910, radon. Ramsay and Rayleigh received the Nobel Prizes in 1904 for Chemistry and Physics respectively, for their discovery of the noble gases, and Ramsay served as SCI president from 1903-4.

Practical applications were soon found. Helium replaced the highly-flammable hydrogen for use in airships (though not the Hindenburg) and argon was used to conserve the filaments in light bulbs. Today, noble gases are used in lighting, welding, space exploration, deep-sea diving, where a helium-oxygen mix is favoured.

Ramsay was less successful with his endorsement of the Industrial and Engineering Trust Ltd, which claimed to have a secret process to extract gold from seawater. Despite the purchase of property along the English coast to implement the process, no gold was ever produced.

From 1887 to 1902 Ramsay and his family lived at 12 Arundel Gardens, London Notting Hill W11. An English Heritage Blue Plaque was unveiled at this address in February 2011, in celebration of his life and contribution to science. UCL's Ramsay Lecture Theatre, is of course, named after him

Ramsays's Nobel medal was kept for many years in a safe, until it was discovered that it was a fake copy. Ramsay had instructed that the original gold medal was to be melted down, and the gold sold, with the proceeds going to one of his charities.

Source: Wikipedia and the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Image: See page for author, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Related Links