Thomas Graham - Encyclopedia

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THOMAS GRAHAM (1805-1869), British chemist, born at Glasgow on the 10th of December 1805, was the son of a merchant of that city. In 1819 he entered the university of Glasgow with the intention of becoming a minister of the Established Church. But under the influence of Thomas Thomson (1773-1852), the professor of chemistry, he developed a taste for experimental science and especially for molecular physics, a subject which formed his main preoccupation throughout his life. After graduating in 1824, he spent two years in the laboratory of Professor T. C. Hope at Edinburgh, and on returning to Glasgow gave lessons in mathematics, and subsequently chemistry, until the year 1829, when he was appointed lecturer in the Mechanics' Institute. In 1830 he succeeded Dr Andrew Ure (1778-1857) as professor of chemistry in the Andersonian Institution, and in 1837, on the death of Dr Edward Turner, he was transferred to the chair of chemistry in University College, London. There he remained till 1855, when he succeeded Sir John Herschel as Master of the Mint, a post he held until his death on the 16th of September 5869. The onerous duties his work at the Mint entailed severely tried his energies, and in quitting a purely scientific career he was subjected to the cares of official life, for which he was not fitted by temperament. The researches, however, which he conducted between 1861 and 5869 were as brilliant as any of those in which he engaged. Graham was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1836, and a corresponding member of the Institute of France in 1847, while Oxford made him a D. C. L. in 1855. He took a leading part in the foundation of the London Chemical and the Cavendish societies, and served as first president of both, in 1841 and 1846. Towards the close of his life the presidency of the Royal Society was offered him, but his failing health caused him to decline the honour.

Graham's work is remarkable at once for its originality and for the simplicity of the methods employed in obtaining most important results. He communicated papers to the Philosophical Society of Glasgow before the work of that society was recorded in Transactions, but his first published paper, "On the Absorption of Gases by Liquids," appeared in the Annals of Philosophy for 1826. The subject with which his name is most prominently associated is the diffusion of gases. In his first paper on this subject (1829) he thus summarizes the knowledge experiment had afforded as to the laws which regulate the movement of gases. "Fruitful as the miscibility of gases has been in interesting speculations, the experimental information we possess on the subject amounts to little more than the well-established fact that gases of a different nature when brought into contact do not arrange themselves according to their density, but they spontaneously diffuse through each other so as to remain in an intimate state of mixture for any length of time." For the fissured jar of J. W. DBbereiner he substituted a glass tube closed by a plug of plaster of Paris, and with this simple appliance he developed the law now known by his name "that the diffusion rate of gases is inversely as the square root of their density." (See Diffusion.) He further studied the passage of gases by transpiration through fine tubes, and by effusion through a minute hole in a platinum disk, and was enabled to show that gas may enter a vacuum in three different ways: (i) by the molecular movement of diffusion, in virtue of which a gas penetrates through the pores of a disk of compressed graphite; (2) by effusion through an orifice of sensible dimensions in a platinum disk the relative times of the effusion of gases in mass being similar to those of the molecular diffusion, although a gas is usually carried by the former kind of impulse with a velocity many thousand times as great as is demonstrable by the latter; and (3) by the peculiar rate of passage due to transpiration through fine tubes, in which the ratios appear to be in direct relation with no other known property of the same gases - thus hydrogen has exactly double the transpiration rate of nitrogen, the relation of those gases as to density being as 1 :14. He subsequently examined the passage of gases through septa or partitions of indiarubber, unglazed earthenware and plates of metals such as palladium, and proved that gases pass through these septa neither by diffusion nor effusion nor by transpiration, but in virtue of a selective absorption which the septa appear to exert on the gases in contact with them. By this means ("atmolysis") he was enabled partially to separate oxygen from air.

His early work on the movements of gases led him to examine the spontaneous movements of liquids, and as a result of the experiments he divided bodies into two classes - crystalloids, such as common salt, and colloids, of which gum-arabic is a type - the former having high and the latter low diffusibility. He also proved that the process of liquid diffusion causes partial decomposition of certain chemical compounds, the potassium sulphate, for instance, being separated from the aluminium sulphate in alum by the higher diffusibility of the former salt. He also extended his work on the transpiration of gases to liquids, adopting the method of manipulation devised by J. L. M. Poiseuille. He found that dilution with water does not effect proportionate alteration in the transpiration velocities of different liquids, and a certain determinable degree of dilution retards the transpiration velocity.

With regard to Graham's more purely chemical work, in 1833 he showed that phosphoric anhydride and water form three distinct acids, and he thus established the existence of polybasic acids, in each of which one or more equivalents of hydrogen are replaceable by certain metals (see Acid). In 1835 he published the results of an examination of the properties of water of crystallization as a constituent of salts. Not the least interesting part of this inquiry was the discovery of certain definite salts with alcohol analogous to hydrates, to which the name of alcoholates was given. A brief paper entitled "Speculative Ideas on the Constitution of Matter" (1863) possesses special interest in connexion with work done since his death, because in it he expressed the view that the various kinds of matter now recognized as different elementary substances may possess one and the same ultimate or atomic molecule in different conditions of movement.

Graham's Elements of Chemistry, first published in 1833, went through several editions, and appeared also in German, remodelled under J. Otto's direction. His Chemical and Physical Researches were collected by Dr James Young and Dr Angus Smith, and printed "for presentation only" at Edinburgh in 1876, Dr Smith contributing to the volume a valuable preface and analysis of its contents. See also T. E. Thorpe, Essays in Historical Chemistry (1902).

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