Today in history – Christian Friedrich Schönbein

Christian Friedrich Schönbein

The 19th-century chemist discovered ozone.

Christian Friedrich Schonbein discovered ozone
Christian Friedrich Schonbein

Born on 18 October 1799 in Metzingen, Germany, Christian Friedrich Schönbein was a chemist best known for the discovery of ozone and the invention of guncotton. He attended primary school until age 13, when he was apprenticed to a chemical and pharmaceutical factory in Böblingen. At age 21, he took and passed an exam verifying his scientific and practical knowledge of chemistry. After pursuing further chemistry studies at the Universities of Erlangen and Tübingen and teaching at schools in England, France, and Germany, he accepted a position in 1828 at the University of Basel, Switzerland, where he would remain for the rest of his career. Schönbein’s ozone discovery occurred in the late 1830s, while he was doing experiments on the electrolysis of water. He noticed a distinctive odor, similar to the smell following a bolt of lightning. In 1839 he succeeded in isolating the new chemical substance and named it from the Greek word “ozein,” meaning “to smell.” Another of his discoveries, guncotton, came about by accident: In 1845, while using his wife’s cotton apron to clean up a chemical spill containing nitric and sulfuric acids, then rinsing it out and hanging it to dry, Schönbein saw it spontaneously ignite. Nitrocellulose, the highly flammable compound that was created, found many practical uses, among them in munitions and flexible films. When dissolved in ether, nitrocellulose forms collodion, which was used in medical dressings and early wet-plate photography. Schönbein is also credited with making the first observation of the fuel-cell effect in 1838; it was his friend William Robert Grove who would create the first prototype fuel cell in 1845. Over his professional life, Schönbein wrote more than 364 scientific papers. He died in 1868 at age 68.

Christian Friedrich Schönbein – Ozone Discovery

This 19th Century Chemist Sniffed Ozone and Invented Guncotton  

Christian Friedrich Schönbein was a very good chemist who lived to the ripe old age of 70. In doing so, he defied the odds; he had a knack for putting himself in harm’s way for the sake of science.

Schönbein was born in 1799 and got his education the old-fashioned way—through rampant abuse of child labor. After grammar school, he went to work as a live-in apprentice for a chemical company at 13 years old. He put in 13 hour days, every day, until he was 21. The down side of this was probably a great deal of fatigue, sorrow, and danger. The up side was that spending more than half of each day doing nothing but working in a chemistry lab gave him good training in that science.

Only after leaving the company did he begin an academic study of chemistry. He studied and worked at multiple universities, where he discovered his first incredibly dangerous substance. It was known as “the odor of electricity.” When chemists were performing the electrolysis of water—the experiment we all did in school, during which electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen—they noticed an odd, slightly sweet scent. The leading theory was that it was little bits of electrode, split off from the main electrode and suspended in the air.

This Badass 19th Century Chemist Sniffed Ozone and Invented Guncotton  

Schönbein didn’t think so. If it were suspended in the air, eventually the scent would dissipate as the particles settled. But he spent long hours in his cramped, stuffy little lab sniffing and sniffing and the scent never went away. Not only that, it was in the air after a lightning strike. Lightning doesn’t require an electrode. Eventually he brought other chemists around to his way of thinking. He called the new “element” ozein, and worked towards, but never succeeded in, isolating large quantities of it. We now know it as ozone, and inhaling will destroy your lungs, heart, and chromosomes.

history of ozone use
History of ozone discovery and use

Schönbein’s first attempts at self-destruction were accidental, but you get the sense that the second time around he was trying. By 1845, he was married and well-established as a chemist. His wife forbade him to take his work home with him, but one weekend she was out of town and he decided to do experiments in her laundry room. He spilled nitric acid, then spilled sulfuric acid, then absentmindedly mopped the spill up with the wife’s apron. To make sure it was dry before she came home, he hung it up near the stove. It burst into flames, burning instantaneously with little smoke. (Come to think of it, maybe he was actually trying to kill his wife.) At that time, the gun was a well-known weapon of war, but gunpowder was slow, unreliable, and produced enough smoke to muck up the machinery in a gun. Schönbein’s discovery became what’s now known as “gun cotton,” a smokeless, cellulose-based explosive that helped make guns easier to use and less messy.

While ozone was just a smell, gun cotton was an invention, and one which Schönbein could patent. Perhaps success mellowed him, because although gun cotton itself was dangerous to manufacture and use, he mostly steered clear of the many fires and explosions that riddle its history. Instead he got a position at the University of Basel, where he sniffed ozone happily until his death in 1868.