Britain has certainly made its mark in the field of chemistry, with pioneers in the chemical industry making amazing scientific discoveries that have shaped the way we understand the world today.
The huge contributions from British scientists to chemistry have led to redeveloping certain ideas that had been around for hundreds –even thousands – of years.
Here we delve into the history of scientific discoveries in Britain over the past 4 centuries, ranging from that falling apple all the way to new interpretations of our DNA.
1. Gravity (1666)
One of the biggest names in historical science, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) comes from Lincolnshire, England and made the huge scientific discovery when he came up with The Universal Law of Gravitation.
The famous myth goes that Newton discovered gravity as he was sitting underneath an apple tree when an apple dropped and landed on his head, leading to Newton’s conclusion that there must be an invisible force pulling everything to the ground.
Gravity is actually the force of attraction between any two objects and is required to change the speed or direction of something that is moving. The strength of the gravitational force is affected by the location of an object, the size of an object and the distance between two objects.
Newton realised the infinite potential of gravity, and went on to discover that gravitational force is what causes the moon to orbit around the earth.
2. Hydrogen Gas (1766)
Hydrogen gas was discovered by Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) who, although born in Nice, was British and spent most of his life living in London.
Cavendish made the scientific discovery by dissolving metal in acids and initially named the gas “flammable air”, as it is highly flammable. Cavendish recognised hydrogen as a discrete substance and found that it produces water when burned.
Most of the hydrogen that exists on earth is in the form of water or organic compounds, and hydrogen also plays an important role in acid-based reactions.
We owe a lot to this scientific discovery; hydrogen is widely used in the food industry (for hydrogenating fats and oils), the production of methanol and in power generators.
3. Oxygen and Soda Water (1774)
The air that keeps us alive is also a British scientific discovery. It was discovered by a chemist from West Yorkshire, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). (Oxygen was also discovered independently around the same time by Carl Scheele, so there is some debate over who gets the credit.)
The revelation of oxygen came from Priestley’s discovery that air is not an elementary substance, but a mixture of gases, one of which being oxygen. He originally gave it the name “dephlogisticated air”.
Priestley then went on to invent carbonated water, and in 1767 he created the first drinkable glass of manmade water, now known as soda water.
Carbonated water is water in which carbon dioxide has been dissolved, and Priestley made this discovery when he suspended a bowl of water above a beer vat at a local brewery in Leeds. He published a paper on this called “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air”.
4. Alkali and Alkaline Earth Metals (1807)
Humphry Davy (1778-1829) from Cornwall is credited with the scientific discovery of a number of earth metals.
Davy discovered sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, barium, strontium and boron. Davy’s discovery of potassium and sodium happened via electrolysis, with potassium being the first metal to be separated by electrolysis in 1807.
By studying the forces involved in the separations, Humphry Davy invented a new field; electrochemistry.
Davy’s name is possibly most widely recognised because of the safety lamp he invented, known as “the Davy lamp”. This was invented to reduce the number of deaths of miners, who were under threat from the reaction of methane gas and candles in their helmets. Davy managed to separate the flame from the gas and made the mines a safer place to work.
5. DNA Double Helix (1951)
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) from London made her significant scientific discovery when women began to play a slightly larger part in the science industry. However, males still dominated and she didn’t quite receive the recognition she deserved.
In 1951, Franklin took X-ray diffraction photos of DNA that showed a helical form of the molecule. The photos demonstrated that DNA was actually a double helix, and this finding went against the popular existing theory that the molecular structure of DNA is made up of three chains.
Her discovery was confirmed by James Watson and Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize for their DNA research.
Franklin’s photos are now recognised as a huge scientific discovery of the 20th century, but at the time other chemists struggled to accept the DNA double helix. It took Wilkins and colleagues around 7 years to collect enough data to prove the proposed DNA structure.