Today in 1898, Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers discovered krypton. Here’s more about Ramsay’s discovery of noble gases from our archives. (Images: top, Sir William Ramsay; bottom, a krypton-filled discharge tube shaped like the element’s symbol, both from Wikimedia Commons.)
As all students of the history of chemistry should know, Oct. 2 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sir William Ramsay, eminent British scientist and recipient of the Nobel Prize, one of the discoverers of the inert gases, argon, helium, neon, krypton, and xenon.
The original discovery came about through the observation by Lord Rayleigh that some chemically pure nitrogen he had made had a lower density than nitrogen isolated from the air. Ramsay followed this lead to the discovery of the presence of argon in the nitrogen from the air. His next find among the inert gases was helium, first in some minerals and later in the air. Convinced that there were more of these gases to be found, he and his colleagues proceeded to the isolation of neon, krypton, and xenon by the fractional distillation of liquid air. Ramsay’s work did not stop there but continued to include the sixth member of the rare gas family, the emanation from radium.
These discoveries, which were only additions to the classical or fundamental knowledge of chemistry when they were made, have led us to materials which are now of great practical use. Argon first came into use for the filling of metal filament lamps. Today, argon, krypton, xenon, and neon find uses in electric lighting. Argon has become important in the welding of reactive metals, such as aluminum and magnesium, and also in the metallurgy of beryllium, cerium, titanium, and zirconium, which are becoming very important today. Helium has found important uses not only in lighter than air craft but has made possible low temperature research of inestimable value. Beyond these major uses of Ramsay’s discoveries, there are many more specialized.
We pay tribute to a scientist of genius whose intellectual drive to add to the fundamental knowledge of nature has materially enriched the life of people who never knew or heard of him.
Chemical & Engineering News, October 13, 1952