1929 – UK

‘First identification of an antibiotic – the discovery of penicillin’

The chance discovery of a mould in 1928 led to the development of a non-toxic drug, which is used to combat the bacteria that infect wounds.

Whilst Paul Erlich (1854-1915) worked in Germany to produce a ‘magic-bullet’, a compound or dye that could stick to bacteria and damage them, Alexander Fleming’s chance discovery of the antibacterial properties of the mould Penicillium notatum led him to conclude there was a chemical produced by the mould that would attack the bacterial agents of disease.

Whilst searching for a naturally occurring bacteria-killer, Fleming’s experiments were concentrated on the body’s own sources, tears, saliva and nasal mucus.
The chance discovery of the anti-bacterial properties of Penicillium notatum was not developed commercially until World War Two over a decade later.

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1808 – England

‘All matter is made up of atoms, which cannot be created, destroyed or divided. Atoms of one element are identical but different from those of other elements. All chemical change is the result of combination or separation of atoms’

Dalton struggled to accept the theory of GAY-LUSSAC because he believed, as a base case, that gases would seek to combine in a one atom to one atom ratio (hence believing the formula of water to be HO not H2O). Anything else would contradict Dalton’s theory on the indivisibility of the atom, which he was not prepared to accept.

The reason for the confusion was that at the time the idea of the molecule was not understood.
Dalton believed that in nature all elementary gases consisted of indivisible atoms, which is true for example of the inert gases. The other gases, however, exist in their simplest form in combinations of atoms called molecules. In the case of hydrogen and oxygen, for example, their molecules are made up of two atoms, described as H2 and O2 respectively.

Gay-Lussac examined various substances in which two elements form more than one type of compound and concluded that if two elements A and B combine to form more than one compound, the different masses of A that combine with a fixed mass of B are in a simple whole number ratio. This is the law of multiple proportions.

AVOGADRO’s comprehension of molecules helped to reconcile Gay-Lussac’s ratios with Dalton’s theories on the atom.

Gay-Lussac’s ratio for water could be explained by two molecules of hydrogen (four ‘atoms’) combining with one molecule of oxygen (two ‘atoms’) to result in two molecules of water (2H2O).

2H2 + O2 ↔ 2H2O

When Dalton had considered water, he could not understand how one atom of hydrogen could divide itself (thereby undermining his indivisibility of the atom theory) to form two particles of water. The answer proposed by Avogadro was that oxygen existed in molecules of two and therefore the atom did not divide itself at all.

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JOHN DALTON (1766-1844)

1801 England

‘The total pressure of a mixture of gases is the sum of the partial pressures exerted by each of the gases in the mixture’

Partial pressures of gases:
Dalton stated that the pressure of a mixture of gases is equal to the sum of the pressures of the gases in the mixture. On heating gases they expand and he realised that each gas acts independently of the other.

Each gas in a mixture of gases exerts a pressure, which is equal to the pressure it would exert if it were present alone in the container; this pressure is called partial pressure.

Dalton’s law of partial pressures contributed to the development of the kinetic theory of gases.

His meteorological observations confirmed the cause of rain to be a fall in temperature, not pressure and he discovered the ‘dew point’ and that the behaviour of water vapour is consistent with that of other gases.

He showed that a gas could dissolve in water or diffuse through solid objects.

Graph demonstrating the varying solubility of gases

The varying solubility of gases

Further to this, his experiments on determining the solubility of gases in water, which, unexpectedly for Dalton, showed that each gas differed in its solubility, led him to speculate that perhaps the gases were composed of different ‘atoms’, or indivisible particles, which each had different masses.
On further examination of his thesis, he realised that not only would it explain the different solubility of gases in water, but would also account for the ‘conservation of mass’ observed during chemical reactions – as well as the combinations into which elements apparently entered when forming compounds – because the atoms were simply ‘rearranging’ themselves and not being created or destroyed.

In his experiments, he observed that pure oxygen will not absorb as much water vapour as pure nitrogen – his conclusion was that oxygen atoms were bigger and heavier than nitrogen atoms.

‘ Why does not water admit its bulk of every kind of gas alike? …. I am nearly persuaded that the circumstance depends on the weight and number of the ultimate particles of the several gases ’

In a paper read to the Manchester Society on 21 October 1803, Dalton went further,

‘ An inquiry into the relative weight of the ultimate particles of bodies is a subject as far as I know, entirely new; I have lately been prosecuting this enquiry with remarkable success ’

Dalton described how he had arrived at different weights for the basic units of each elemental gas – in other words the weight of their atoms, or atomic weight.

Dalton had noticed that when elements combine to make a compound, they always did so in fixed proportions and went on to argue that the atoms of each element combined to make compounds in very simple ratios, and so the weight of each atom could be worked out by the weight of each element involved in a compound – the idea of the Law of Multiple Proportions.

When oxygen and hydrogen combined to make water, 8 grammes of oxygen was used for every 1 gramme of hydrogen. If oxygen consisted of large numbers of identical oxygen atoms and hydrogen large numbers of hydrogen atoms, all identical, and the formation of water from oxygen and hydrogen involved the two kinds of atoms colliding and sticking to make large numbers of particles of water (molecules) – then as water has an identity as distinctive as either hydrogen or oxygen, it followed that water molecules are all identical, made of a fixed number of oxygen atoms and a fixed number of hydrogen atoms.

Dalton realised that hydrogen was the lightest gas, and so he assigned it an atomic weight of 1. Because of the weight of oxygen that combined with hydrogen in water, he first assigned oxygen an atomic weight of 8.

There was a basic flaw in Dalton’s method, because he did not realise that atoms of the same element can combine. He assumed that a compound of atoms, a molecule, had only one atom of each element. It was not until Italian scientist AMADEO AVOGADRO’s idea of using molecular proportions was introduced that he would be able to calculate atomic weights correctly.

In his book of 1808, ‘A New System of Chemical Philosophy’ he summarised his beliefs based on key principles: atoms of the same element are identical; distinct elements have distinct atoms; atoms are neither created nor destroyed; everything is made up of atoms; a chemical change is simply the reshuffling of atoms; and compounds are made up of atoms from the relevant elements. He published a table of known atoms and their weights, (although some of these were slightly wrong), based on hydrogen having a mass of one.

Nevertheless, the basic idea of Dalton’s atomic theory – that each element has its own unique sized atoms – has proved to be resoundingly correct.

If oxygen atoms all had a certain weight which is unique to oxygen and hydrogen atoms all had a certain weight that was unique to hydrogen, then a fixed number of oxygen atoms and a fixed number of hydrogen atoms combined to form a fixed weight of water molecules. Each water molecule must therefore contain the same weight of oxygen atoms relative to hydrogen atoms.

Here then is the reason for the ‘law of fixed proportions’. It is irrelevant how much water is involved – the same factors always hold – the oxygen atoms in a single water molecule weigh 8 times as much as the hydrogen atoms.

Dalton wrongly assumed that elements would combine in one-to-one ratios as a base principle, only converting into ‘multiple proportions’ (for example from carbon monoxide, CO, to carbon dioxide, CO2) under certain conditions. Each water molecule (H2O) actually contains two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. An oxygen atom is actually 16 times as heavy as a hydrogen atom. This does not affect Dalton’s reasoning.

The law of fixed proportions holds because a compound consists of a large number of identical molecules, each made of a fixed number of atoms of each component element.

Although the debate over the validity of Dalton’s thesis continued for decades, the foundation for the study of modern atomic theory had been laid and with ongoing refinement was gradually accepted.

A_New_System_of_Chemical_Philosophy - DALTON's original outline


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1911 Manchester, England

‘The atom contains a core or nucleus of very high density and very concentrated positive charge. Most of the atom is empty space, with the electrons moving about the tiny central nucleus’

Early photograph of ERNEST RUTHERFORD


Working under JJ THOMSON (1856-1940) at the Cambridge Cavendish Laboratory and later at the McGill University in Montreal, in 1898 Rutherford put forward his observation that radioactive elements give off at least two types of ray with distinct properties, ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’ rays.

In 1900 he confirmed the existence of ‘gamma’ rays, which remained unaffected by a magnetic force, whilst alpha and beta rays were both deflected in different directions by such an influence. Although both displayed the ability to stab through solid matter, alpha rays were far less penetrating than beta rays.
He proved through experimental results that they were helium atoms missing two electrons.

Alpha Beta Particles, Gamma Rays in a Magnetic Field

Alpha Beta Particles, Gamma Rays in a Magnetic Field

Alpha rays are in fact positively charged helium atoms that become true helium when they slow down and their charge is neutralised by picking up electrons.
Beta rays were later shown to be made up of electrons, and gamma rays to have a shorter wavelength than X-rays.

diagram showing comparative penetrations of Alpha Beta Gamma radiation

Alpha Beta Gamma radiation

In Montreal, Rutherford worked with Frederick Soddy and showed that over a period of time, half of the atoms of a radioactive substance could disintegrate. During the process the substance spontaneously transmuted to other elements. During radioactive decay, one kind of atom (radium) was ejecting another kind of atom (helium).

Working with other elements, Rutherford and Soddy found that each radioactive element had its own characteristic ‘half-life’. After one half-life, a sample retained only half its original radioactivity, after two half-lives a quarter, after three half-lives an eighth. The half-life of thorium emanation, now known as radon, was close to a minute. The half-lives of other radioactive elements ranged from a split-second to many billions of years. That of radium was 1620 years, while uranium had a half-life of 4.5 billion years.

The concept of half-life provides a way of measuring the age of rocks. As radioactive atoms decay they emit alpha particles. As these are essentially helium atoms, the amount of helium gas accumulates within the pores and fissures of a sample of a uranium mineral as a measure of how many atoms have decayed. Heating samples to drive off their helium and measuring the amount gives an indication of their age.
In order to provide more reliable dates, measuring the amount of lead, the ultimate decay product, compared with the amount of uranium, eliminates the errors introduced by the escape of some of the helium decay product to the air.

Dating rocks in this way gives an estimate of the age of the Earth, and by implication also the Sun, of around 4.5 billion years.

A radioactive atom is simply a heavy atom, which happens to be unstable. Eventually it disintegrates by expelling an alpha, beta or gamma ray. What remains is an atom of a slightly lighter element. A radioactive atom may decay more than once. Uranium, for instance, transforms itself into a succession of lighter and lighter atoms, one of which is radium, until it achieves stability as a non-radioactive atom of lead.

English: Radioactive decay modes

Working with HANS GEIGER (1882-1945), Rutherford developed the Geiger counter at Manchester University in 1908. This device measured radiation and was used in Rutherford’s work on identifying the make-up of alpha rays.

While he was at McGill, Rutherford had experimented firing alpha particles at a photographic plate. He had noticed that, while the image produced was sharp; if he passed the alpha particles through thin plates of mica, the resulting image on the photographic plate was diffuse. The particles were clearly being deflected through small angles as they passed close to the atoms of mica.
In 1910 his team undertook work to examine the results of directing a stream of alpha particles at a piece of platinum foil. While most passed through, about one in eight thousand bounced back – that is, deflected through an angle of more than 90 degrees.

Deflection of alpha Particles by Thin Metal Foil

Deflection of alpha Particles by Thin Metal Foil

In 1911 he put forward the theory that the reason for the rate of deflection was because atoms contained a minute nucleus that bore most of the weight, while the rest of the atom was largely ’empty space’ in which electrons orbited the nucleus much as planets orbit the Sun. The reason that one in eight thousand alpha particles bounced back was because they were striking the positively charged nucleus of an atom, whereas the rest simply passed through the spacious part.

But what was an atomic nucleus made of?
At 100,000th the size of the atom, it would take decades of painstaking experiments to discover.

In 1919, working in collaboration with other scientists, Rutherford artificially induced the disintegration of atoms by collision with alpha particles. In the process the atomic make-up of the element changed as protons were forced out of the nucleus. He transmuted nitrogen into oxygen (and hydrogen) and went on to repeat the process with other elements.

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ROBERT BROWN (1773-1858)

1827 – UK

‘Tiny solid particles suspended in a fluid are in continuous random motion’

This motion is caused by constant collisions between the suspended particles and the fluid molecules.

In 1905 EINSTEIN studied Brownian motion and used it to calculate the approximate mass and size of atoms and molecules.

Robert Brown (1773-1858), British botanist. Brown is most famous for his 1827 observation of erratic motion by pollen grains in water. This was named Brownian motion. In 1877, Desaulx recognised that the motion is caused by the pollen colliding with water molecules. This meant that Brownian motion was the first directly observable evidence for the existence of molecules. Brown spent years working on plant taxonomy, establishing the classification of two major divisions of plants, the gymnosperms and the angiosperms. He also observed an essential part of living cells, which he named the nucleus (1831) &copy:


Brown is also remembered for discovering a small body within cells, which he named the nucleus (from the Latin for ‘little nut’). Plant cells were discovered by HOOKE.

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ISAAC NEWTON (1642-1727)

1687 England

‘Any two bodies attract each other with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them’

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The force is known as gravitation
Expressed as an equation:

F = GmM/r2

where F is Force, m and M the masses of two bodies, r the distance between them and G the gravitational constant.
This follows from KEPLER’s laws, Newton’s laws of motion and the laws of conic sections. Gravitation is the same thing as gravity. The word gravity is particularly used for the attraction of the Earth for other objects.


Newton stated that the law of gravitation is universal; it applies to all bodies in the universe. All historical speculation of different mechanical principles for the earth from the rest of the cosmos were cast aside in favour of a single system. He demonstrated that the planets were attracted toward the sun by a force varying as the inverse square of the distance and generalized that all heavenly bodies mutually attract one another. Simple mathematical laws could explain a huge range of seemingly disconnected physical facts, providing science with the straightforward explanations it had been seeking since the time of the ancients.
That the constant of gravitation is in fact constant was proved by careful experiment, that the focus of a body’s centre of gravity appears to be a point at the centre of the object was proved by his calculus.

Newton’s ideas on universal gravitation did not emerge until he began a controversial correspondence with ROBERT HOOKE in around 1680. Hooke claimed that he had solved the problem of planetary motion with an inverse square law that governed the way that planets moved. Hooke was right about the inverse square law, but he had no idea how it worked or how to prove it, he lacked Newton’s genius that allowed him to derive Kepler’s laws of planetary motion from the assumption that an object falling towards Earth was the same kind of motion as the Earth’s falling toward the Sun.
It was not until EDMUND HALLEY challenged Newton in 1684 to show how planets could have the elliptical orbits described by Johannes Kepler, supposing the force of attraction by the Sun to be the reciprocal of their distance from it – and Newton replied that he already knew – that he fully articulated his laws of gravitation.

It amounts to deriving Kepler’s first law by starting with the inverse square hypothesis of gravitation. Here the sun attracts each of the planets with a force that is inversely proportional to the square of the distance of the planet from the sun. From Kepler’s second law, the force acting on the planets is centripetal. Newton says this is the same as gravitation.

In the previous half century, Kepler had shown that planets have elliptical orbits and GALILEO had shown that things accelerate at an even pace as they fall towards the ground. Newton realized that his ideas about gravity and the laws of motion, which he had only applied to the Earth, might apply to all physical objects, and work for the heavens too. Any object that has mass will be pulled towards any other object. The larger the mass, the greater the pull. Things were not simply falling but being pulled by an invisible force. Just as this force (of gravity) pulls things towards the Earth, it also keeps the Moon in its orbit round the Earth and the planets moving around the Sun. With mathematical proofs he showed that this force is the same everywhere and that the pull between two things depends on their mass and the square of the distance between them.

Title-page of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica

Title-page of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica

Newton published his law of gravitation in his magnum opus Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in 1687. In it Newton analyzed the motion of orbiting bodies, projectiles, pendulums and free fall near the Earth.

The first book of Principia states the laws of motion and deals with the general principles of mechanics. The second book is concerned mainly with the motion of fluids. The third book is considered the most spectacular and explains gravitation.

Why do two objects attract each other?
‘I frame no hypotheses’, said Newton

It was Newton’s acceptance of the possibility that there are mysterious forces in the world, his passions for alchemy and the study of the influence of the Divine that led him to the idea of an invisible gravitational force – something that the more rationally minded Galileo had not been able to accept.
Newton’s use of mathematical expression of physical occurrences underlined the standard for modern physics and his laws underpin our basic understanding of how things work on an everyday scale. The universality of the law of gravitation was challenged in 1915 when EINSTEIN published the theory of general relativity.

1670-71 Newton composes ‘Methodis Fluxionum‘, his main work on calculus, which is not published until 1736. His secrecy meant that in the intervening period, the German mathematician LEIBNIZ could publish his own independently discovered version – he gave it the name calculus, which stuck.


The angle of curve, by definition, is constantly changing, so it is difficult to calculate at any particular point. Similarly, it is difficult to calculate the area under a curve. Using ARCHIMEDES’ method of employing polygons and rectangles to work out the areas of circles and curves, and to show how the tangent or slope of any point of a curve can be analyzed, Newton developed his work on the revolutionary mathematical and scientific ideas of RENE DESCARTES, which were just beginning to filter into England, to create the mathematics of calculus. Calculus studies how fast things change. The idea of fluxions has become known as differentiation, a means of determining the slope of a line, and integration, of finding the area beneath a curve.


1687 – England

  • First Law: An object at rest will remain at rest and an object in motion will remain in motion at that velocity until an external force acts on the object

  • Second Law: The sum of all forces (F) that act on an object is equal to the mass (m) of the object multiplied by the acceleration (a), or F = ma

  • Third Law: To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

The first law

introduces the concept of inertia, the tendency of a body to resist change in its velocity. The law is completely general, applying to all objects and any force. The inertia of an object is related to its mass. Things keep moving in a straight line until they are acted on by a force. The Moon tries to move in a straight line, but gravity pulls it into an orbit.
Weight is not the same as mass.

The second law

explains the relationship between mass and acceleration, stating that a force can change the motion of an object according to the product of its mass and its acceleration. That is, the rate and direction of any change depends entirely on the strength of the force that causes it and how heavy the object is. If the Moon were closer to the Earth, the pull of gravity between them would be so strong that the Moon would be dragged down to crash into the Earth. If it were further away, gravity would be weaker and the Moon would fly off into space.

The third law

shows that forces always exist in pairs. Every action and reaction is equal and opposite, so that when two things crash together they bounce off one another with equal force.


1672 – New Theory about Light and Colours is his first published work and contains his proof that white light is made up of all colours of the spectrum. By using a prism to split daylight into the colours of the rainbow and then using another to recombine them into white light, he showed that white light is made up of all the colours of the spectrum, each of which is bent to a slightly different extent when it passes through a lens – each type of ray producing a different spectral colour.

Newton also had a practical side. In the 1660s his reflecting telescope bypassed the focusing problems caused by chromatic aberration in the refracting telescope of the type used by Galileo. Newton solved the problem by swapping the lenses for curved mirrors so that the light rays did not have to pass through glass but reflected off it.

At around the same time, the Dutch scientist CHRISTIAAN HUYGENS came up with the convincing but wholly contradictory theory that light travels in waves like ripples on a pond. Newton vigorously challenged anyone who tried to contradict his opinion on the theory of light, as Robert Hooke and Leibniz, who shared similar views to Huygens found out. Given Newton’s standing, science abandoned the wave theory for the best part of two hundred years.

1704 – ‘Optiks’ published. In it he articulates his influential (if partly inaccurate) particle or corpuscle theory of light. Newton suggested that a beam of light is a stream of tiny particles or corpuscles, traveling at huge speed. If so, this would explain why light could travel through a vacuüm, where there is nothing to carry it. It also explained, he argued, why light travels in straight lines and casts sharp shadows – and is reflected from mirrors. His particle theory leads to an inverse square law that says that the intensity of light varies as the square of its distance from the source, just as gravity does. Newton was not dogmatic in Optiks, and shows an awareness of problems with the corpuscular theory.

In the mid-eighteenth century an English optician John Dolland realized that the problem of coloured images could largely be overcome by making two element glass lenses, in which a converging lens made from one kind of glass was sandwiched together with a diverging lens made of another type of glass. In such an ‘achromatic’ lens the spreading of white light into component colours by one element was cancelled out by the other.

During Newton’s time as master of the mint, twenty-seven counterfeiters were executed.

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JAMES WATT (1736-1819)

1765 – Glasgow, Lanarkshire, UK

‘Steam engine’

Watt’s steam engine was the driving force behind the industrial revolution and his development of the rotary engine in 1781 brought mechanisation to several industries such as weaving, spinning and transportation.

Portrait of JAMES WATT who developed the steam engine ©


Although THOMAS NEWCOMEN had developed the steam engine before Watt was even born, Newcomen’s machines had been confined to the world of mining.

In 1764, when Watt was asked to repair a scale model of Newcomen’s engine he noted its huge inefficiency. The heating and cooling of the cylinder with every stroke wasted huge amounts of fuel; and wasted time in bringing the cylinder back up to steam producing temperature, which limited the frequency of strokes. He realised that the key to improved efficiency lay in condensing the steam in a separate container – thereby allowing the cylinder and piston to remain always hot. Watt continued to improve his steam engine and developed a way to make it work with a circular, rotary motion. Another of his improvements was the production of steam under pressure, thus increasing the temperature gap between source and sink and raising the efficiency in a manner later described by SADI CARNOT and elucidated by JAMES JOULE.



RICHARD ARKWRIGHT was the first to realise the engine could be used to spin cotton, and later in weaving. Flour and paper mills were other early adopters, and in 1788 steam power was used to paddle marine transportation. In the same year, Watt developed the ‘centrifugal governor’ to regulate the speed of the engine and to keep it constant.

diagram of the Watt 10hp engine

Watt 10hp engine

Watt was the first to coin the term ‘horsepower’, which he used when comparing how many horses it would require to provide the same pull as one of his machines. In 1882 the British Association named the ‘watt’ unit of power in his honour.

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