Today in Science History – March 14 – Thomas Leopold Willson

Thomas Willson

Thomas Willson (1860 – 1915)

March 14 is Thomas “Carbide” Willson’s birthday. Wilson was a Canadian chemist and inventor that is known for the discovery of the industrial process to produce calcium carbide and its byproduct, acetylene.

The discovery of his process was also a byproduct. He was attempting to discover an inexpensive method to use an electric furnace to smelt aluminum metal from ore. His idea turned out to not be all that effective and only produced small amounts of aluminum metal. After looking over his results, Willson believed he could get a better reaction by adding something a little more chemically active, calcium.

He mixed the ore with coal tar as a source of carbon and lime (calcium oxide) for the calcium. This did not provide the aluminum metal he had hoped for and he dumped the mess into a nearby river. Once it hit the water, a brightly burning gas was produced. At first Willson thought the gas was hydrogen formed from a reaction with the calcium, but it did not burn as cleanly as hydrogen.

Further investigation proved he had produced calcium carbide, which when mixed with water, produces acetylene. Acetylene would prove to be an extremely useful compound to work with. Lights using acetylene were ten times brighter as coal gas lights. Acetylene-oxygen mixtures could be used to weld and cut steel with ease. It was also found to be the basis of many organic synthetic products such as solvents, plastics and synthetic rubber and fiber substitutes.

While acetylene is one of the more important industrial chemicals, calcium carbide also proved to be useful as a fertilizer. Calcium carbide absorbs atmospheric nitrogen to form calcium cyanamide. This breaks down in the soil to form the strong fertilizers urea and ammonium carbonate.

Willson never did produce the aluminum he was after, but instead helped usher in a major industrial chemical industry.

Notable Science History Events for March 14

1995 – William Alfred Fowler died.

Fowler was an American astrophysicist who was awarded half the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics for his studies of nuclear reactions and the formation of elements. He described how elements could be formed and explained their abundance by the process of nucleosynthesis in stars.

1932 – George Eastman died.

George Eastman

George Eastman (1854 – 1932)

Eastman was an American chemist and inventor who wanted to improve the ease of photography and make it available to everyone. He invented a method to eliminate the wet emulsion plates the photographer had to prepare before using their cameras. His dry emulsion plates could be mass produced and had a long shelf life. He further refined this by eliminating the fragile glass plates with the invention of rolled film.

He created the Eastman Kodak company and created a preloaded camera which he sold for $25 in 1888. Once the customer shot all 100 photographs, they could send the camera back to Kodak for development. Eastman Kodak began the world’s enthusiasm for photography and helped found the motion picture industry.

His business earned him a lot of money. He is also known for his philanthopy. He passed millions of dollars to his employees through a profit sharing plan and is believed to donate $100 million to various education and arts institutions, hospitals, parks and other charitable organizations.


1879 – Albert Einstein was born.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

Einstein was a German physicist who was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the photoelectric effect and demonstrating the photon theory of light. He is best known for his general theory of relativity which ties the forces of gravity, electricity, and magnetism together.

1874 – Johann Heinrich Mädler died.

Mädler was a German astronomer who produced the first detailed maps of Mars and the Moon. He also calculated the rotational period of Mars to within 13 seconds of the value known today. A second attempt brought his value to within 1.1 seconds of the known value.

His maps of the Moon became the standard for a generation of astronomers. He predicted the Moon’s features do not change over time because there is no water or atmosphere to cause erosion.

He was also one of the primary forces behind the conversion to the Gregorian calendar system in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. He proposed a means to move Russia to from the Julian calendar but was ignored by the Tsar’s government and the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian astronomer Sergey Pavlovich Glazenap modified Mädler’s original plan and managed to get it adopted by the new government in 1918.

1862 – Vilhelm Bjerknes was born.

Vilhelm Bjerknes

Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862 – 1951)

Bjerknes was a Norwegian physicist who developed many of the mathematical models of climate that would be the basis of modern weather forecasting.

He applied the principles of fluid dynamics and thermodynamics to large-scale motions of air and the oceans to form his models. He believed if he had enough data of the initial conditions of the weather, it would be possible to predict (or forecast) the weather.

He is also responsible for the term ‘fronts’ to describe the border between hot and cold air masses. He used this term in his polar front theory which described how mid-latitude cyclone systems progress from birth to decay.

1860 – Thomas Leopold Willson was born.

1854 – Paul Ehrlich was born.

Paul Ehrlich (1854 - 1915)

Paul Ehrlich (1854 – 1915)
Library of Congress

Ehrlich was a German biologist who shares the 1908 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov for their respective work on immunity. Ehrlich is best known for his side-chain theory which explains the effects of serum and enabled the measurement of antigens. He coined the terms chemotherapy and magic bullet. A magic bullet is a method of selectively targeting a specific bacteria without harming any other organisms. He was also the first to observe the blood-brain barrier that separates blood from cerebrospinal fluid.

1835 – Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli was born.


Giovanni Schiaparelli

Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835 – 1910)

Schiaparelli was an Italian astronomer who demonstrated the Perseid and Leonid meteor showers were associated with comets and discovered the asteroid 69 Hesperia.

He is also known for his observations of Mars. He was the first to observe long straight lines on the surface which he called canali, meaning channels in Italian. The name “canals of Mars” came from a mistranslation of his work. He gave names to the ‘seas’ and ‘continents’ or wide light and dark areas of the surface. His descriptions of the features of Mars gave rise to several theories of intelligent life on Mars

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