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William Hyde Wollaston

Born 6 August 1766(1766-08-06)
East Dereham, Norfolk, England
Died 22 December 1828 (aged 62)
Chislehurst, England
Nationality United Kingdom
Fields Chemistry
Known for Discoveries of palladium and rhodium
Camera lucida
Dark lines in the solar spectrum
Notable awards Copley Medal (1802)

William Hyde Wollaston FRS (6 August 1766 – 22 December 1828) was an English chemist and physicist who is famous for discovering two chemical elements and for developing a way to process platinum ore.



Wollaston was born in East Dereham, Norfolk, the son of the priest-astronomer Francis Wollaston (1737-1815) and his wife Mary Farquier. In 1793 William obtained a doctorate in medicine from Cambridge University. During his studies there he became interested in chemistry, crystallography, metallurgy and physics. The mineral wollastonite is named after him. In 1800 he left medicine and concentrated on pursuing these interests instead of his trained vocation.

Wollaston died in 1828 and was buried in Chislehurst, England.


Wollaston became wealthy by developing the first physico-chemical method for processing platinum ore in practical quantities, and in the process of testing the device he discovered the elements palladium (symbol Pd) in 1803 and rhodium (symbol Rh) in 1804.

Anders Gustav Ekeberg discovered tantalum in 1802, however, William Hyde Wollaston declared it was identical with niobium (then known as columbium). Due to Wollaston's influence the existence of columbium was temporarily denied. Later Heinrich Rose proved in 1846 that columbium and tantalum were indeed different elements and he renamed columbium "niobium".

Wollaston also performed important work in electricity. In 1801, he performed an experiment showing that the electricity from friction was identical to that produced by voltaic piles. During the last years of his life he performed electrical experiments that would pave the way to the eventual design of the electric motor. However, controversy erupted when Michael Faraday, who was undoubtedly the first to construct a working electrical motor, refused to grant Wollaston credit for his earlier work. Wollaston also invented a battery that allowed the zinc plates in the battery to be raised out of the acid, so that the zinc wouldn't be dissolved as quickly as it would if it were in the battery all the time.

His optical work was important as well, where he is remembered for his observations of dark Fraunhofer lines in the solar spectrum (1802) which eventually led to the discovery of the elements in the Sun. He invented the camera lucida (1807), the reflecting goniometer (1809), and the Wollaston prism. He also developed the first lens specifically for camera lens called Wollaston's meniscus lens, or just meniscus lens, in 1812. The lens was designed to improve the image projected by the camera obscura. By changing the shape of the lens, Wollaston was able to project a flatter image, eliminating much of the distortion that was a problem with many of that day's biconvex lenses.

Wollaston used his Bakerian lecture in 1805, On the Force of Percussion, to defend Gottfried Leibniz's principle of vis viva, an early formulation of the conservation of energy. Wollaston was too ill to deliver his final Bakerian in 1828 and dictated it to Henry Warburton who read it on 20 November.

Wollaston's attempt to demonstrate the presence of glucose in the blood serum of diabetics was unsuccessful due to the limited means of detection available to him. His 1811 paper "On the non-existence of sugar in the blood of persons labouring under diabetes mellitus." [1]concluded that sugar must travel via lymphatic channels from the stomach directly to the kidneys, without entering the bloodstream. Wollaston supported this theory by referring to the thesis a young medical student at Edinburgh, Charles Darwin,"Experiments establishing a criterion between mucaginous and purulent matter. And an account of the retrograde motions of the absorbent vessels of animal bodies in some diseases." [2] This Charles Darwin (1758-1778) would be the eldest son of Erasmus Darwin and not his more famous nephew, Charles Robert Darwin.

Wollaston also served on a royal commission that opposed adoption of the metric system (1819), and one that created the imperial gallon.

Honours and awards

Honours and awards

See also

  1. ^ Philos Trans R Soc Lond 1811;101:96–105
  2. ^ Charles Darwin (1758–1778) and the history of the early use of digitalis Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 1934; 10(2):496–506

Further reading

External links

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Astley Cooper
Copley Medal
Succeeded by
Richard Chenevix

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

WILLIAM HYDE WOLLASTON (1766-1828), English chemist and natural philosopher, was born at East Dereham, Norfolk, on the 6th of April 1766, the second of seventeen children. His father, the Rev. Francis Wollaston (1731-1815), rector of Chislehurst, grandson of the William Wollaston noticed above, was an enthusiastic astronomer. Wollaston was educated at Charterhouse, and afterwards at Caius College, Cambridge, of which he became a fellow. He took the degrees of M.B. (1787) and M.D. (1793), starting to practise medicine in 1789 at Bury St Edmunds, whence he soon removed to London. But he made little way, and failed to obtain a vacant physicianship at St George's hospital; the result was that he abandoned medicine and took to original research. He devoted much attention to the affairs of the Royal Society, of which he was elected a fellow in 1793 and made secretary in 1806. He was elected interim president in June 1820, on the death of Sir Joseph Banks; but he did not care to enter into competition with Sir Humphry Davy, and the latter was elected president at the anniversary meeting in November 1820. Wollaston became a member of the Geological Society of London in 1812, and served frequently %I the Council and for some time as a vice-president. Beyond appearing at the meetings of learned societies he took little part in public affairs; he lived alone, conducting his investigations in a deliberate and exhaustive manner, but in the most rigid seclusion, no person being admitted to his laboratory on any pretext. Towards the close of 1828 he felt the approach of a fatal malady - a tumour in the brain - and devoted his last days to a careful revisal of his unpublished researches and industrial processes, dictating several papers on these subjects, which were afterwards published in the Philosophical Transactions. He died in London on the 22nd of December 1828.

Most of Wollaston's original work' deals more or less directly with chemical subjects, but diverges on all sides into optics, acoustics, mineralogy, astronomy, physiology, botany and even art. In chemistry he made a speciality of the platinum metals. Platinum itself he discovered how to work on a practical scale, and he is said to have made a fortune from the secret, which, however, he disclosed in a posthumous paper (1829); and he was the first to detect the metals palladium (1804)(1804) and rhodium (1805) in crude platinum. In regard to palladium his conduct was open to criticism. He anonymously offered a quantity of the metal for sale at an instrument-maker's shop, issuing an advertisement in which some of its main properties were described. Richard Chevenix (1774-1830), a chemist, having bought some of the substance, decided after experiment that it was not a simple body as claimed, but an alloy of mercury with platinum, and in 1803 presented a paper to the Royal Society setting forth this view. As secretary, Wollaston saw this paper when it was sent in, and is said to have tried to persuade the author to withdraw it. But having failed, he allowed the paper, and also a second by Chevenix of the same tenor in 1805, to be read without avowing that it was he himself who had originally detected the metal, although he had an excellent opportunity of stating the fact in 1804 when he discussed the substance in the paper which announced the discovery of rhodium. In 1809 he proved the elementary character of columbium (niobium) and titanium. In optics he was the first, in 1802, to observe the dark lines in the solar spectrum. Of the seven lines he saw, he regarded the five most prominent as the natural boundaries or dividing lines of the pure simple colours of the prismatic spectrum, which he supposed to have four primary divisions. He described the reflecting goniometer in 1809 and the camera lucida in 1812, provided microscopists with the "Wollaston doublet," and applied concavo-convex lenses to the purposes of the oculist. His cryophorus was described in 1813, in a paper "On a method of freezing at a distance." In 1821, after H. C. Oersted (1777-1851) had shown that a magnetic needle is deflected by an electric current, he attempted, in the laboratory of the Royal Institution in the presence of Humphry Davy, to convert that deflection into a continuous rotation, and also to obtain the reciprocal effect of a current rotating round a magnet. He failed in both respects, and when Michael Faraday, who overheard a portion of his conversation with Davy on the subject, was subsequently more successful, he was inclined to assert the merit of priority, to which Faraday did not admit his claim. Among his other papers may be mentioned those dealing with the formation of fairy rings (1807), a synoptic scale of chemical equivalents (1814), sounds inaudible to ordinary ears (1820), the physiology of vision (1824), the apparent direction of the eyes in a portrait (1824) and the comparison of the light of the sun with that of the moon and fixed stars (1829).

In geological circles Wollaston is famous for the medal which bears his name, and which (together with a donation fund) is annually awarded by the council of the Geological Society of London, being the result of the interest on {l000 bequeathed by Wollaston for "promoting researches concerning the mineral structure of the earth." The first award was made in 1831. The medal is the highest honour bestowed by the society: it was originally made of palladium, but is now made of gold.

An appreciative essay on Wollaston will be found in George Wilson's Religio Chemici (1862).

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