By: Petr Vanýsek

Edward AchesonThe discovery of an electric arc can be tied to the use of an electrochemical energy source. Sir Humphry Davy described in 1800 an electric discharge using electrochemical cells1 that produced what we would call a spark, rather than an arc. However, in 1808, using an electrochemical battery containing 2000 plates of copper and zinc, he demonstrated an electric arc 8cm long. Davy is also credited with naming the phenomenon an arc (Fig. 1). An electric arc was also discovered independently in 1802 by Russian physicist Vasily Petrov, who also proposed various possible applications including arc welding. There was a long gap between the discovery of the electric arc and putting it to use.

Electrochemical cells were not a practical source to supply a sustained high current for an electric arc. A useful application of this low voltage and high current arc discharge became possible only once mechanical generators were constructed. Charles Francis Brush developed a dynamo, an electric generator, in 1878, that was able to supply electricity for his design of arc lights. Those were deployed first in Philadelphia and by 1881 a number of cities had electric arc public lights. Once that happened, the application and new discoveries for the use of the electric arc followed. Electric arc for illumination was certainly in the forefront. First, electric light extended greatly the human activities into the night and second, public street electric lights, attracting masses of spectators, were the source of admiration, inspiration, and no doubt, more invention.


ECS Classics: Pillars of Modern Electrochemistry

pillars_of_electrochemAn article by A. K. Shukla and T. Prem Kumar in the Fall 2008 issue of Interface.

Although there is some archaeological evidence which suggests that some form of a primitive battery (sometimes called a Baghdad battery) was used for electroplating in Mesopotamia ca. 200 BC, electrochemistry as we know it today had its genesis in the pile of crowns of Alessandro Volta in 1800. The inspiration for his studies might have come from the famous frog leg experiments of Galvani, who, however, was content to conclude that the phenomenon was of biological origin. A metamorphosis took place with seminal contributions from John Daniell and Michael Faraday. From such humble beginnings, electrochemistry today has matured into a multidisciplinary branch of study. Built on the precision of physics and depth of materials science, it encompasses chemistry, physics, biology, and chemical engineering.

The uniqueness of electrochemistry lies in the fact that the application of a potential or electric field can help overcome kinetic limitations at low temperatures. Moreover, electrochemical processes can be tuned to obtain chemically and sometimes stereochemically specific products. Electrochemical reactions are also sensitive to electrode-surface characteristics and electrolyte composition, which opens up several analytical and characterization avenues. Like many forward thinkers who have strived to make life easier for us to live, history pages are littered with the names, some of them long forgotten, of those who have made electrochemistry what it is today. This article is an attempt to provide a glimpse of these pillars of electrochemistry through their contributions.

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“The first meeting that I attended was held in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1928. I went with Dr. W. C. Moore, who had previously persuaded me to become a member. I knew immediately that I was interested in the Society. That interest was not due to the papers that I listened to. There was nothing strictly on electro-organic on the program. I believe that it was due to the enthusiasm of the group, and the fact that I was made to feel that I belonged.”
-Sherlock Swann, Jr.

An article by Richard Alkire in the latest issue of Interface.

Electro-organic chemistry had its champion in Sherlock Swann, Jr. His scholarship, especially his massive bibliographic efforts, served singlehandedly to keep alive the promise and spirit of electro-organic chemistry in the U.S. from the 1930s to the 50s.

He was a charter member of the Electro-organic Division of The Electrochemical Society, formed in 1940, and was the first person to hold the offices of Secretary, Vice-Chair, and Chair of that Division. Beginning with his first ECS meeting in 1928 and continuing throughout his life, he played an active role in the Society, including a term as President in 1958-59. He was the Electro-organic Divisional Editor of the Journal of The Electrochemical Society, 1939-59; the Lifetime Honorary Chair of the Chicago Section; and was made an Honorary Member of the Society in 1974.

Swann was born in 1900 in Baltimore, Maryland, where his family had deep roots and a tradition of service to society. His great-grandfather, Thomas Swann, served as governor of Maryland, as mayor of Baltimore, as President of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and was a leading force in the creation of Druid Hill Park, Baltimore’s first large municipal park. His father served as Baltimore police commissioner and subsequently as Postmaster, and led the reconstruction of downtown Baltimore police commissioner and subsequently as Postmaster, and led the reconstruction of downtown Baltimore and its streets after the Great Fire of 1904.

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Gerischer's immense contributions continue to leave an indelible mark, not only in electrochemistry, but also in physical chemistry and materials chemistry.

Gerischer’s immense contributions continue to leave an indelible mark, not only in electrochemistry, but also in physical chemistry and materials chemistry.

An article by Adam Heller, Dieter Kolb, and Krishnan Rajeshwar in the Fall 2010 issue of Interface.

Heinz Gerischer was born on March 31, 1919 in Wittenberg, Germany. He studied chemistry at the University of Leipzig between 1937 and 1944 with a two-year interruption because of military service. In 1942, he was expelled from the German Army because his mother was born Jewish; he was thus found “undeserving to have a part in the great victories of the German Army.” The war years were difficult for Gerischer and his mother committed suicide on the eve of her 65th birthday, in 1943. His only sister, Ruth (born in 1913), lived underground after escaping from a Gestapo prison and was subsequently killed in an air raid in 1944.

In Leipzig, Gerischer joined the group of Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer, a member of a distinguished family, members of whom were persecuted and murdered because of opposition to Nazi ideology. Bonhoeffer descended from an illustrious chemical lineage of Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932) and Walther Hermann Nernst (1864-1941), and kindled Gerischer’s interest in electrochemistry, supervising his doctoral work on periodic (oscillating) reactions on electrode surfaces, completed in 1946. He followed Bonhoeffer to Berlin where his PhD supervisor had accepted the directorship of the Institute of Physical Chemistry at the Humboldt University, and also became the department head at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin-Dahlem (later the Fritz Haber Institute). Gerischer himself was appointed as an “Assistent.” Many years later, Gerischer would return to this distinguished institution as its director. With the Berlin Blockade and the prevailing economic conditions the post-war research was carried out under extremely difficult conditions.

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