Today in Science History – April 20 – Franz Karl Achard and Sugar Beets

Franz Karl Achard
Franz Karl Achard (1753 – 1821)

April 20 marks the passing of Franz Karl Achard. Archard was a French natural philosopher who discovered how to get sugar from beets on an industrial scale.

Napoleon’s defeat in Egypt caused the British navy to embargo cargo from reaching French ports. Any cargo ship which challenged this found their ship and cargo confiscated by the Royal Navy. This prevented cane sugar from the West Indies from reaching Europe. Smugglers charged extremely high prices for running the blockade and sugar became a luxury item only the wealthy could afford.

In 1747, German chemist Andreas Marggraf, discovered some beets contain sugar and a devised a method to extract it. His method involved soaking the beets in alcohol to extract their sugar. Eventually, one of his students took up the project. Franz Achard continued the work by checking the sugar content of various strains of beets and other methods to extract the sugar. He eventually claimed he could produce beet sugar crystals at a third of the cost estimated by the French government.

King Frederick William III of Prussia knew of Achard’s earlier work through his father, Frederick William II. Achard had made discoveries that helped acclimate tobacco plants to grow in Germany which earned him official recognition and a royal pension. He would visit the court from time to time to update the King on topics of science and technology.

Frederick William III granted Achard some land to construct a beet sugar extraction plant based on his ideas. He was successful enough to bring sugar back to everyone’s tables. This first factory served as a model for other factories and beet sugar production became the primary source of sugar in Europe.

This should have made Achard a wealthy man, but a series of fires in his refineries caused him to declare bankruptcy. He died penniless in 1821.

Notable Science History Events for April 20

2003 – Bernard Katz died.

Katz was a German biophysicist who shares the 1970 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Ulf von Euler and Julius Axelrod for discovering how nerves transmit their signals to operate muscles. His research centered on the synapses between nerve cells and discovered the number of neurotransmitters released is never less than a certain amount and increases in set integral values.

1927 – Karl Alex Müller was born.

Müller is a Swiss physicist who shares the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics with J. Georg Bednorz for their discoveries in superconductor ceramics. Their work raised the critical temperature for superconductivity by nearly 70% to 35 K. This breakthrough introduced the field of “high-temperature” superconductivity.

1918 – Karl Ferdinand Braun died.

Karl Ferdinand Braun
Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850 – 1918)

Braun was a German physicist who shares the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Guglielmo Marconi for their contributions to wireless telegraphy or radio. He was also the inventor of the cathode ray tube oscilloscope. This device is a familiar tool to anyone in the field of electronics and is the basic technology behind cathode ray television sets.

1918 – Kai Manne Börje Siegbahn was born.

Kai Manne Börje Siegbahn
Kai Manne Börje Siegbahn (1918 – 2007)

Siegbahn was a Swedish physicist who was awarded half the 1981 Nobel Prize in physics for the developing X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy. This technique detects the elemental composition of a sample by irradiating it with x-rays and measuring the energy of what is knocked loose. His father, Karl Siegbahn was awarded the 1924 Nobel Prize in Physics for x-ray spectroscopy.

1821 – Franz Karl Achard died.

1786 – John Goodricke died.

John Goodricke
John Goodricke (1764 – 1786)

Goodricke was an English astronomer who was the first to propose periodic variable stars were stars with another body orbiting and eclipsing the light from the star.

His research on the variable star Algol would earn him entry to the Royal Society just four days before his death from pneumonia at age 21.