William Hyde Wollaston, a great unknown, discovered palladium and rhodium

William Hyde Wollaston

August 6, 1766, Norfolk, England – December 22, 1828, Chislehurst, England

The son of Francis Wollaston, a well-known amateur astronomer, and Althea Hyde, and despite having 16 siblings, they were a financially well-off family enjoying an intellectually stimulating environment.

Between 1774 and 1778, he was privately educated at Charterhouse School and later studied science at Gonville and Caius College (Cambridge).

In 1793, he obtained his doctorate in medicine at the University of Cambridge and it was during his studies that he became interested in chemistry, crystallography, metallurgy and physics, leaving his profession in 1800.

He was very successful in developing a physical-chemical method for processing platinum ore. He kept the details of the process secret until near his death and made handsome profits for some 20 years by being England's only supplier of the product that had many of the same qualities as gold, but was much cheaper.

Chemical analysis related to the platinum purification process led Wollaston to discover the chemical elements palladium (1802) and rhodium (1804).

Pila de Wollaston

During the last years of his life, he did important work with electricity that would pave the way for the design of the electric motor. In 1801, he performed an experiment showing that the electricity from friction was identical to that produced by voltaic cells. Furthermore, his research led to the accidental discovery of electromagnetic induction 10 years before Michael Faraday, who built the first working electric motor and published his results without acknowledging Wollaston's previous work.

On the other hand, he also invented a battery that allowed the battery's zinc plates to be lifted from the acid, so that the zinc wouldn't dissolve as quickly as if it were in the battery all the time..

Cámara lúcida de Wollaston

He is also known for his observations of dark lines in the solar spectrum, which ultimately led to the discovery of the elements in the Sun, for his work on the hypsometer (a measuring instrument used to determine the altitude above sea level of a place at from the boiling temperature of a liquid) and on various optical devices (camera lucida, reflecting goniometer, meniscus lens, etc.)

One of his most curious inventions is the cryophorus, "a glass container containing liquid water and water vapor. It is used in physics courses to demonstrate rapid freezing by evaporation."

The same year that he received his doctorate, he was elected a member of the Royal Society, holding the position of secretary between 1804 and 1816 and being president in 1820.

In 1822 he was elected a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Little is known of his private life, except that he never married.

Cryophorus de Wollaston

Throughout history, William Hyde Wollaston has not received the same fame that should accompany his position in the scientific world as the renowned Thomas Young, Humphry Davy or John Dalton. There are different theories on this, including that Wollaston himself was unconventional in presenting his discoveries, even publishing anonymously (initially) in the case of Palladium. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, his private documents were inaccessible, and his notebooks disappeared shortly after his death and remained so for more than a century; they were finally recovered in the late 1960s at Cambridge University, but it was not until 2015, after 30 years of research, that the first full biography of him was completed by Melvyn Usselman in 2015.

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