Ostwald’s “Electrochemistry: History and Theory”

Hardbound English translation published in 1980 by Amerind Publishing Co., New Delhi

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

Volume 1

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.

Volume 2

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.

Ampere’s Alternate Interpretation of Electromagnetism

A. K. T. Assis is a Brazilian scholar who has written some intriguing books on physics and the history of physics. He has very generously made all these books available for free access on his website – https://www.ifi.unicamp.br/~assis/books.htm.

I have been flipping through the book Ampere’s Electrodynamics by Prof. Assis. It requires a much closer study, but I wanted to write about one thing that stood out for me.

All this while, I had thought of the development of electromagnetism as a linear timeline. I had thought that starting with Oersted’s experiment, other scientists had added bit by bit to the understanding of electromagnetic phenomena, until Maxwell synthesised all the knowledge into one single theory. This book showed me that the actual history was very different.

It seems that there were many differences of opinion between Ampere and the other prominent scientists of the time regarding how to interpret the phenomena. The following snapshot from the book’s Contents pages promises an enticing discussion of these scientific controversies.

The most remarkable aspect of Ampere’s theory was that he imagined all magnetic phenomena as arising from electric currents. In this, almost all his contemporaries disagreed with him vehemently.

For Ampere, there was no ‘magnetic field’ – it was simply a manifestation of an interaction between currents. He hypothesised that there were circular electric currents inside magnets and inside the Earth, which we know today to be true.

The following muse (edited for readability) from Ampere’s writings is a striking example of the role of imagination and creativity in science:

“Suppose we had known that a magnetic needle is influenced by an electric current into a position perpendicular to the wire before knowing that a magnetic needle points to the geographical north. Then, would not the simplest idea and the one that would occur immediately to anyone who wanted to explain it be that there is an electric current inside the Earth?

Andre Marie Ampere

Assis’ book also includes a complete English translation of Ampere’s classic work written in 1826, Theory of Electrodynamic Phenomena, Uniquely Deduced from Experience.

I hope to write more on this when I do manage to study this book in detail.

Time for Science Education

In a previous post, I looked at resources from the mid-20th century, when history and philosophy of science had been at the centre of debates on science education. Later, probably as a consequence of the Space Race starting in the late 1950’s, a more technocratic view of science education took over and history of science was relegated to the status of an esoteric discipline.

In recent decades, Michael Matthews, professor at University of New South Wales, Sydney, has been at the forefront of reviving interest in the history and philosophy of science as an area of core relevance to science education. It is one of his books, Time for Science Education, that I wish to look at in this blog post.

If I ever get to meet Prof. Matthews, I would like to ask him if he intended a pun in the book title! But on the surface, the ‘time’ in the title refers to timekeeping and time measurement. The theme of the book is how the history of clocks and timekeeping can be used to teach science through a historical-investigative approach.

I realised for the first time on reading this book that the simple pendulum — ubiquitous and dealt with in an abstract way in the school curriculum — had a rich and complex history that was closely tied to the development of clocks. Beginning with Galileo’s simple ‘pulsilogium’ (a weight suspended by a thread of adjustable length) that he used as a medical student to count the pulse rate of patients, to the precision of John Harrison’s famed clocks that kept accurate time on rough seas, there is a lot to delve into about the deceptively simple pendulum than just the formula of its time period.

It was also a revelation for me that until around as late as the 15th century, there was no real unit of time. The period of daylight was often divided into 12 equal hours, which meant that a summer hour was longer than a winter hour. This was good enough for people to go about their daily lives effectively.

What changed the game was the beginning of the Age of Exploration, and the need to determine longitude accurately at sea. Latitude could be determined easily by noting the position of certain stars or the Sun, but longitude was a very tricky affair and often the difference between life and death for mariners. It was this new need that drove an intense and competitive search for an accurate timekeeping mechanism. The mechanical clocks that were invented as a result, are some of the most fascinating devices ever made by humans.

One of the questions that the book opened up for me in science teaching was about the value of bringing in historical-social-cultural connections to the topics that are taught. Apart from making the topic appealing to students having a wider range of personalities and interests, situating the scientific idea in its broader context seemed to me to serve an important purpose of broadening the students’ worlds and imagination. And that might be more important than mastering certain scientific concepts, especially for the vast majority who never learn science after school.

Time for Science Education is a fairly expensive academic publication, but a limited preview is available on Google Books, to take a peek at some of the chapters: https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/Time_for_Science_Education/JrcqBgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

Joseph Priestley — the Science Historian

Joseph Priestley is pretty well known as the discoverer of the gas we now call oxygen. He was a brilliant scientist and had a very methodical mind. His fame rests primarily on the series of researches into the chemical properties of different gases, collected together under three volumes called Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air.

There is, however, a less widely known aspect of Priestley’s scholarship that is no less brilliant. He was one of the first persons to write complete histories of scientific disciplines.

In 1767, Priestley’s book The History and Present State of Electricity was published. It was a massive 500-page book that started with the ancient Greek knowledge of the attractive powers of amber. It made its way, through all the major milestones in the development of electrostatics, to the then recent experiments of his contemporaries and friends like Benjamin Franklin. The book contains numerous obscure and forgotten experiments that are just as intriguing as the more famous ones. Priestley also included some of his own experiments, as the subtitle suggests.

The cover page of Priestley’s book on electricity

The book was presumably well received, for Priestley soon followed it up with another book on history of science, this time on light. The History and Present State of Discoveries relating to Vision, Colour, and Light came out in 1772.

The book on light

The preface to the second book on light reveals Priestley’s thinking behind these massive projects.

In order to facilitate the advancement of all the branches of useful science, two things seem to be principally requisite. The first is, an historical account of their rise, progress, and present state; and the second, an easy channel of communication for all new discoveries. Without the former of these helps, a person… labours under great disadvantages… finding himself anticipated in the discoveries he makes.

p.i, Preface, Light

In the preface, Priestley goes on to say how the knowledge in each branch of science was so vast and scattered in numerous books and languages, that there was a pressing need for someone to put it all together. Priestley acknowledges that the success of the book on electricity motivated him, and now he intended to embark on a very ambitious project to write similar books in all major branches of science.

It will be seen, in the preface to the first edition of the history of electricity, that I then considered the history of all the branches of experimental philosophy as too great an undertaking for any one person; but, like the fox with respect to the lion, a nearer view has familiarised it to me, and I now look upon it not only without dread, but with a great deal of pleasure;…(and) as a very practicable business.

p.iii, Preface, Light

However, in spite of his enthusiasm and confidence, Priestley never wrote any more histories of science. Perhaps it was the research on gases that occupied his time and mind completely. Nevertheless, the two histories that he did write are both absolute gems and a valuable source of knowledge for students of science and science history even today.

Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science

James Bryant Conant (1893-1978) was a chemist, educationist and diplomat who served as a president of Harvard University. Among various educational reforms he pushed for in his influential position, was a greater role for the history and philosophy of science in science education.

In 1948, Harvard University Press published two volumes consisting of eight case studies in the history of science, edited by Conant and others. In the introduction, Conant writes that they were “designed primarily for students majoring in the humanities or the social sciences.”

The thinking was that people from a variety of professions — such as policy makers, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, writers, etc. — could be called upon to evaluate the work of scientists. To be able to do this, they needed to have an understanding of how science worked.

But how do you understand how science works, without having mastered the latest scientific knowledge?

Conant and his co-editors chose stories of discovery from 18th and 19th century science for their case histories. These were narratives that anyone who had had a basic secondary school education in science could follow. And as Conant argues in the introduction, the underlying process of scientific inquiry had not changed much since the 18th century, although research institutions and scientific communication had become far more sophisticated.

I learnt about the Harvard Case Histories in my first year of teaching. I was excited to find used copies available on Amazon’s US website. They were old copies discarded by some university library and I paid $1 for the books and $25 for the shipping! I devoured the case histories and found fascinating ways to use the material to actually teach science in school. I’ll write more about those explorations later, but this post is about the books themselves.

Volume 1 has four case studies in the physical sciences:

  1. Robert Boyle’s experiments with vacuum and air pressure
  2. Phlogiston theory and the chemical revolution
  3. Development of heat and temperature as distinct concepts
  4. The development of the atomic-molecular theory including the question of atomic mass

Volume 2 has three case studies in the life sciences and one in the physical sciences:

  1. The discovery of photosynthesis
  2. Pasteur’s study of fermentation
  3. Pasteur’s and Tyndall’s study of spontaneous generation
  4. The development of the concept of electric charge – early experiments up to Coulomb

The digital copies are freely accessible on Internet Archive. The books must still be in copyright, but I suppose they have been made available with permission from the publishers, being out of print since 1957. Internet Archive must surely have done their homework before making it available.

Volume 1: https://archive.org/details/harvardcasehisto010924mbp
Volume 2: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.60093