Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1852, was born William Ramsey.

Ramsey was a chemist who found out what was in the atmosphere, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of substances which nobody knew existed.

William Ramsay was born on 2nd October 1852, at Glasgow. His father was a respectable civil engineer, and his mother a very respectable church going Presbyterian, who desired nothing more for her son than he be brought up to be a minister of the church. The young Ramsey was therefore educated locally at Glasgow Academy and, aged 14, went up to Glasgow University to read classics, literature and the general subjects which, when combined, afford one the ability to deal with a church ministry.

Ramsay was not an assiduous student of these subjects. He took a part time job in the laboratory of the City Analyst, where he learnt the essentials of chemistry, and neglected his assigned university subjects, preferring to attend lectures in physics, chemistry and geology. Consequently he left Glasgow University without taking a degree. In 1871, he went to the University of Heidelberg, where he studied under the German analytical chemist, Robert Bunsen, known to generations of schoolboys for his invention of the eponymous ‘bunsen burner’, and in 1872, received a doctorate in chemistry.

Ramsey returned to Glasgow University to work in the chemistry faculty and, in 1879, was awarded the chair in chemistry at the University College of Bristol. In 1887 he succeeded to the prestigious chair of Chemistry at University College, London. Here he met the physicist Lord Rayleigh, who posed the question as to the difference in weight between the nitrogen found in chemical compounds, and the heavier nitrogen found in the atmosphere. Ramsey devised a method of comparing the two types of nitrogen, and discovered that the atmospheric nitrogen was contaminated with a mysterious unknown gas. Ramsey called his new gas ‘argon’ from the Greek ‘idle’ because it did nothing, it was inert. He went on to discover and name ‘krypton’, Greek for ‘mysterious’ and ‘neon’ which simply meant ‘new’. Ramsay went on to isolate helium from minerals and demonstrated that helium was continually produced, during the radioactive decay of radium. This finding was of vital importance to the understanding of nuclear reactions.

In 1914, Ramsay gave up research to work for the Ministry of Munitions, during the First World War. He died on 23rd July 1916 at High Wycombe, and was buried at Hazelmere. [Holy Trinity Church, Amersham Road (A404), Hazlemere, Buckinghamshire, HP15 7QD]

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