A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Thirty Three


Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742 – 1786)

The latest inductee to our Hall of Fame is the chemist, Carl Scheele, who came from the then Swedish occupied region of Pomerania. Such were the misfortunes that befell him during his life he has been dubbed hard-luck Scheele.

From a young age Scheele was fascinated by gases and conducted experiments into the composition of air. In those days a substance called phlogiston was supposed to be released from any burning material. Once it had been released and consumed, the combustion would stop. Air was thought to be an element in which chemical reactions took place but which did not interfere with the reactions. Our hero carried out a number of experiments in which he burned substances such as saltpetre, manganese dioxide and heavy metal nitrates such as mercuric oxide. His experiments led him to conclude that air was composed of two gases – what he termed fire air and foul air – and tried to explain the fire air which he had isolated, what we know as oxygen, in phlogistical terms.

Alas for poor Carl by the time he published his findings in 1777 he had been beaten to the draw by Joseph Priestley and Lavoisier who had both published their results into the composition of air and into the isolation of oxygen.

As well as oxygen, Scheele isolated other chemical elements such as barium and manganese (in 1774), tungsten (1781) and a number of chemical compounds including citric and lactic acids, glycerol, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulphide. Our hero discovered a process which was similar to what we now know as pasteurisation and in 1769 had developed a method that enabled phosphorus to be mass-produced, thus enabling Sweden to become the leading producer of matches.

Another missed opportunity for our hero centred around his experimentation with hydrochloric acid. When treating pyrolusite with the acid over a warm sand bath he noticed that a strongly smelling green gas was produced which was denser than ordinary air. He spotted that the gas stripped out colour and named the substance he had discovered dephlogisticated muriatic acid. Sir Humphrey Davy renamed it chlorine and took the prize for isolating it, chlorine becoming the foundation for disinfectants.

Of course, being at the cutting edge of chemical experimentation meant that you often didn’t have a real clue about the properties of the elements and compounds you were isolating. In his zeal to understand and describe precisely the end products of his experiments, he would often sniff or even taste what had been produced. We now would readily recognise that this inadvertent and unnecessary exposure to noxious substances such as arsenic, mercury, lead and various acids would do you no good. And so it came to pass. At the early age of 43 he took to his bed at his home in Koping and died as a result of what the medics diagnosed as mercury poisoning, the victim of his experimentation.

Carl Scheele, for being the unsung discoverer of oxygen, manganese and chlorine (amongst other substances) and being a martyr to your thirst for knowledge, you are a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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