Sir William Ramsay: Why the Scottish chemist is today's Google Doodle

Google is today celebrating Sir William Ramsay, the Scottish chemist, with a special commemorative Doodle on what would have been his 167th birthday.

Wednesday, 2nd October 2019, 10:33 am
Updated Thursday, 3rd October 2019, 8:36 am
Acclaimed as the "greatest chemical discoverer of his time", his work led to the research of a hitherto unknown group of elements now known as the noble gases. Picture: Google

Acclaimed as the "greatest chemical discoverer of his time", his work led to the research of a hitherto unknown group of elements now known as the noble gases.

Recognised during his lifetime with a knighthood and the Nobel Prize, Ramsay's achievements are being marked by the search engine with a whimsical design (known as a Doodle) acknowledging his contributions to the periodic table of elements.

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William Ramsay. Picture: Getty

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Glasgow born

William Ramsay was born in Glasgow on 2 October 1852, and grew up in the city centre before becoming an apprentice to a shipbuilder in Govan.

However, instead of pursuing that career he opted to study chemistry at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1869 before training under the chemist Thomas Anderson.

He completed his doctoral thesis, Investigations in the Toluic and Nitrotoluic Acids, at the University of Tubingen in Germany, where he developed a reputation for innovative experimentation techniques, before returning to the UK.

Ramsay was appointed as a Professor of Chemistry at University College, Bristol (the predecessor of the University of Bristol) in 1879.

His most celebrated research was completed at University College, London, where he became the chair of Chemistry in 1887.

During his period at the university he resided at 12 Arundel Gardens in Notting Hill, where a blue plaque commemorates his life and work.

After moving to the capital Ramsay published various papers on the properties of liquids and vapours, before joining forces with the British physicist, Lord Raleigh, who had piqued his curiosity with work on the density of nitrogen in the earth's atmosphere.

A noble cause

In 1894, the duo announced that they had discovered a chemically inert gas, which they named argon, from the Greek word for "lazy".

While searching for argon, Ramsay also found helium, which until that point had only been observed in the spectrum of the sun, and not found on earth.

He also worked with the chemist Morris Travers, alongside whom he discovered neon, krypton and xenon – Ramsay had predicted their existence in his 1896 book The Gases of the Atmosphere.

These were dubbed the "noble gases", named in the same way as the "noble metals" for their low reactivity, and their chemical inertness made them useful for many purposes, from helium balloons to neon lighting.

His discoveries reshaped the periodic table (and consequently school science lessons and the BBC quiz show Pointless) forever.

They also earned Ramsay his knighthood, bestowed in 1902 by King Edward VII, and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he was awarded in 1904.

The chemist married Margaret Buchanan in 1881, shortly after his appointment in Bristol, and the couple had a son and a daughter together.

Ramsay lived in Hazlemere in Buckinghamshire until his died of nasal cancer on 23 July 1916, at the age of 63.

This story first appeared on our sister site the i.