19th April 1894.
Scientists, in common with others, stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past and none more so than Lord Rayleigh and the brilliant Scot, William Ramsay, who followed in the footsteps of Humphrey Davy.
For it was Davy, who earlier in the 19th century, had discovered a dozen elements by his use of electrolysis in applying Volta’s electrochemical battery (Voltaic Pile) to chemistry. Thus by electrolytic decomposition he discovered about a fifth of the then known elements.
It was Today in 1894 that (Sir) William Ramsay had attended a lecture given by Lord Rayleigh on the recently discovered element Argon (Ar).
Work had previously been done by Sir Henry Cavendish in 1785, on the Nitrogen Problem, concerned as it was, with the constituent elements in the air.
However it was another 100 years before scientists realized that things didn’t quite add up.
Then Rayleigh came on the scene when he discovered a discrepancy between the density of Nitrogen (N), which even after the removal of the other air constituents, oxygen and carbon dioxide, showed a gas remaining which didn’t match anything else on the spectrum.
Ramsay then followed up these findings and by August was able to write to Rayleigh that he had isolated the hitherto unknown compounds, which significantly didn’t have any reactivity with other known elements.
It was on August 13th 1894 that Ramsay and Rayleigh jointly announced the discovery of Argon.
Both were awarded Nobel Prizes in 1904; Ramsay for Chemistry, and his collaborator, the 3rd Baron Rayleigh, for Physics for their work in the discovery of Argon, (from the Greek meaning ‘lazy one’).(1)
Ramsay (1852-1916) went on to discover and isolate other inert gaseous elements, (the Noble Gases), and in the process created a new Group in the Periodic Table.(2)
However he didn’t discover the heaviest inert gas, Radon, but he and Robert Gray did isolate the gas in 1908 which they named Niton, changed in 1923 to Radon, after Radium one of its sources.(3)
(1a) Joseph William Strutt physicist (1842-1919).
(1b) The Rayleigh peerage was created for his grandmother Lady Charlotte Strutt after her husband Colonel Joseph Strutt MP, had declined the award. The family had made their fortune in milling.
(2) Ramsay died 23.7.1916 and featured as did other notables, as a caricature in the society magazine, Vanity Fair. There is a Blue Plaque at 12, Arundel Gardens, Notting Hill, London, where he lived for a time.
(3) Radon leaks from the ground, is highly carcinogenic and is the biggest cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking in the United States.
Ref: rsc.org/learn-chemistry/resource/on this day in chemistry.
Ref: Wood, Margaret, 2010. A Tale of two Knight, Chemical Heritage.