Today I thought of writing about a rare history-of-science book that I have in my collection. Wilhelm Ostwald, after whom the nitric acid manufacturing process is named, wrote an exhaustive history of electrochemistry in 1896. The book was in German, and was titled Elektrochemie, ihre Geschichte und Lehre (Electrochemistry: its History and Teaching).
I came to know about Ostwald’s book from Hasok Chang’s Is Water H2O?, where it was repeatedly cited in discussing the controversy over how to interpret the electrolysis of water. Only the original German edition was available on the Internet Archive. After a bit of searching, I stumbled upon a used copy of an English translation on Amazon’s US store, and immediately bought it.
When I got the two-volume edition, I was intrigued to learn that it was translated into English by an Indian, N. P. Date. It was published for the Smithsonian Institution and the National Science Foundation by a company called Amerind Publishing Co. in New Delhi. The publishing company does not seem to exist any more, according to online records.
What the book covers
The first volume begins with the early history of electrochemistry in the mid 1700s. Back then, scientists had observed chemical effects of static electricity such as the formation of oxides of nitrogen on passing an electric spark through air, and the decomposition of water.
However, the history of electrochemistry truly begins with the work of Luigi Galvani, who is best known for his legendary experiment on making a dead frog’s leg twitch electrically. The debate between Galvani and Volta, whether the frog’s leg moved due to “animal electricity”, led to the invention of Volta’s “pile” – the first electrochemical battery.
Not only was the pile the first continuous source of electric current, but its invention spawned a fresh controversy over how it worked. Volta and his followers believed that the current originated from the simple contact of dissimilar metals, while another group of scientists believed that a chemical reaction was the cause. The resolution of this question would take more than 50 years and spur new discoveries in electrochemistry.
The first volume closes with the pioneering work of Michael Faraday which systematised and quantified the study of electrochemical reactions. The gist of this work would be known to students of grades 11 and 12 as Faraday’s Laws of electrolysis.
The second volume enters a more modern period of research that includes the development of new types of electrochemical cells, the application of quantitative concepts such as conservation of energy to electrochemical reactions and the measurement of electrochemical potential.
It also tracks the development of a new theoretical framework to explain the conduction of electricity in electrolytes, culminating in the pathbreaking work of the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius whose theory of electrolytic dissociation is accepted even today.
Ostwald’s text is a rare work that exclusively focuses on this important branch of science that straddles physics and chemistry. Hopefully, the book will be made more accessible in the future, either as a reprint or in the Internet Archive’s digital library.