William Ramsay was born on the second of October, in the year 1852. William, and his parents, William and Catherine, lived in Glasgow, Scotland. William Ramsay performed his work in his native town, until 1870 when he went to Tbingen and earned his doctorate in 1872. When returned to Scotland later that year, he became an assistant chemist at the Anderson College in Glasgow. Eight years later, he was appointed principal and professor of chemistry at London University, which held until his retirement in 1913.
Ramsay’s earliest works were in the field of organic chemistry. In his early experiments he showed that the alkaloids are related to pyridine, which he synthesized in 1876 from acetylene and prussic acid. Some of his first work was related with the study of a new Bismuth mineral, which was only recognized as a metal until the 18th Century. William Ramsay also verified Roland Eotvo’s law for the constancy of the rate of change of molecular surface energy with temperature. Ramsay published his work in accordance to Dobbie, on the decomposition products of the quinine alkaloids. William was very successful and submitted many contributions to physical chemistry, being mostly on Stoichiometry and Thermodynamics. He also commenced the 1880’s with his work with Sidney Young on evaporation and dissociation.
In 1892, a British physicist named Lord Rayleigh asked chemists to explain the difference between the atomic weight of Nitrogen found in chemical compounds and the heavier, pure Nitrogen found in the atmosphere. Ramsay and Rayleigh were communicating daily with their results to solve their curiosity of the unknown gas. Rayleigh determined that a liter of pure Nitrogen weighs 1.2505 grams, but a liter of Nitrogen gas generated from air, by removing the Oxygen, Carbon Dioxide, and the water vapor, weighed 1.2572 grams. This led to Ramsay’s prediction that there must be another unknown element. William and Lord Rayleigh devised a chemical reaction to remove Nitrogen and Oxygen from air. To isolate the unknown, they would repeatedly pass atmospheric Nitrogen over heated Magnesium. This would remove all of the real Nitrogen, intern leaving the solid, Magnesium Nitride or Mg3N2. When the two chemists performed this reaction, Mg + N? Mg3N2 + ?, the remaining gas which is approximately 1% of air, was named Argon from the Greek word for lazy or inactive. Ramsay and Rayleigh announced their discovery of Argon to the British Association in August of 1894.
William Ramsay searched for sources of Argon in the mineral kingdom. He discovered Helium instead of Argon in a uranium-bearing mineral. Until this point, Helium was only known to exist on the sun. Ramsay determined that this element was in fact Helium by viewing the mineral’s bright yellow stripe under a spectroscope which corresponded with the Helium that is on the sun. Helium was originally named by Lockyer. This led Ramsay to believe that there is a new group of elements.
Ramsay was guided by Mendeleev’s periodic table and began work with the British chemist, Morris W. Travers. Argon was now available in much larger quantities, through experiments by Claude in Paris, by the fractional distillation of air. Ramsay prepared a large quantity of Argon and fractionated it. He isolated three new elements. The first was called Neon, meaning “The New One.” The second was named Krypton, meaning ” The Hidden One,” and the third one was called Xenon, meaning ” The Alien One”, or “The Stranger.” Each of the new elements were unique by examining their spectrum. Then in 1910, Ramsay discovered Niton, or Radon in the radioactive emissions of radium, which was the last of the noble gases.
Since the gases that Ramsay discovered, had remarkable inertness, or completely unreactive, led to their use for special purposes. Helium was used for lighter than-air crafts instead of Hydrogen because Hydrogen is highly flammable whereas Helium is unreactive. Also, Argon was used to conserve the filaments in light bulbs. The inertness of the gases contributed to the “Octet Rule” in the theory of chemical bonding. Linus Pauling believed that compounds of the noble gases should be possible. Ywis, in 1962 Neil Bartlett prepared the first noble gas compound which is Xenon Hexafluoroplatinate, XePtF6. Currently most compounds of the Noble gases have been found.
William Ramsay has received many honors, medals and memberships. He received an honorary doctorate of Dublin University, The Barnando Medal, $5000 from the Smithsonian Institute, 25,000 franks from France, the A.W. Hoffman Medal, and received memberships to the Institute of France, the Royal Academies of Ireland, Berlin, Bohemia, Netherlands, Rome, Petrograd, Turin, Romania, Vienna, Norway, Sweden and Mexico. There are many accomplishments and awards that Ramsay has obtained, but his most famous must be the Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1904.
As for William Ramsay’s personal life, he married Margaret Buchanan in 1881. They had one son and one daughter. Other than chemistry, William enjoyed different languages and to travel. Since he was knighted as an award, he is now mostly known as Sir William Ramsay. Sir William Ramsay died on July 23, 1916, at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England.
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