Nobel Prize Award for Chemistry 1916 - 1925

About the winners of the Nobel Prize for chemistry from 1916 to 1925 including Haber, Aston, and Pregl, what they won for, as well as behind the scenes information on the decision.

1916 No Award

1917 No Award

1918 Fritz Haber (1868-1934), German.

Work: Invented the process of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen.

Behind the Award--Haber's early experiments, for which he was awarded the prize, found that temperatures of about 500deg centigrade and pressures of about 200 atmospheres were optimum for producing ammonia, using powdered osmium or uranium as a catalyst. In later mass production, manufacturers learned, to their initial sorrow, that Haber's use of carbon steel for the reaction chamber was dangerous. At high temperature and under great pressure, hydrogen decarburized and penetrated into the red-hot iron. The chamber became very brittle and subject to explosive cracking, on the order of an enormous hand grenade. Frequent explosions occurred before a revised chamber design, contributed by Carl Bosch, solved the problem. Haber, however, had been awarded the honor for his method, now used by nearly the entire world, with Carl Bosch's adaptation, for the production of nitrogen fertilizers.

1919 No Award

1920 Walther H. Nernst (1864-1941), German. Work: For his thermochemical researches.

1921 Frederick Soddy (1877-1956), British. Work: Researched radioactive substances and isotopes.

1922 Francis W. Aston (1877-1945), British. Work: Discovered, by using the mass spectrograph, isotopes of many nonradioactive elements, and verified the whole-number rule.

Behind the Award--In 1815, William Prout originally proposed a whole-number rule which assumed that all elements were simply multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen. The Academy noted that Prout's hypothesis of a "primordial" atom had been on the right track, except that science had found that the atomic building block consisted of a positively-charged nucleus with a varying number of negatively-charged electrons revolving around it. In his acceptance speech, Aston warned that future research workers should beware of releasing the energy of the atom, fearing that it might prove uncontrollable. He speculated that all of the earth's hydrogen "might be transformed at once and the success of the experiment published at large to the universe as a new star." Research scientists at Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945, proved that he was wrong, although they were not absolutely certain until the 1st atomic bomb had been experimentally exploded.

1923 Fritz Pregl (1869-1930), Austrian. Work: Invented a method for organic micro-analysis.

Behind the Award--Although 23 Germans have won the prize, Pregl is the only one ever to win for Austria. Prior to 1930, Nobel committee members learned heavily toward the Germans, awarding them nearly half of the total prizes. Since W.W. II, the emphasis has been overwhelmingly on Great Britain or the U.S. with these 2 nations producing almost 60% of the winners. While some critics may now accuse the committee of bias toward the U.S. or Britain, as supposedly was done in the early years with the German selections, the most probable explanation for the skewed Anglo-U.S. concentration may be better research facilities and greater financial grants. No one, however, can ever accuse the committee of bias toward their own countrymen--only 4 Swedes have ever been accorded the honor in chemistry, the last being in 1948.

1924 No Award

1925 Richard A. Zsigmondy (1865-1929), German (b. Austria). Work: Clarified the nature of colloidal solutions.

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