Edward Frankland

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Edward Frankland

Sir Edward Frankland, KCB, FRS (18 January 1825 – 9 August 1899) was a British chemist. He was an expert in water quality and analysis, and originated the concept of combining power, or valence, in chemistry. He was also one of the originators of organometallic chemistry.


Edward Frankland was born in Lancaster, England. After attending Lancaster Royal Grammar School, he spent six years as an apprentice to a druggist in that town. In 1845 he became an assistant at the chemical laboratory of the British Geological Survey in London. The laboratory was directed by Lyon Playfair, who had been a chemistry student of Justus Liebig in Germany. In summer 1847 Frankland visited Germany and met some of Playfair's chemistry contacts there, including Robert Bunsen. In August 1847 Frankland accepted a post as science-master at a boarding school in Hampshire, but the following summer he opted to return to Germany to be a full-time student at the University of Marburg. Robert Bunsen was an influential teacher at Marburg at the time, and Bunsen's reputation was one of the main attractions for Frankland. The following year Frankland accepted an invitation to move to Justus Liebig's laboratory at Giessen. By this stage Frankland already had his own research agenda and had published some original research in chemistry.[1] In January 1850 Lyon Playfair revealed his intention to resign from his professorship at Putney College of Civil Engineering in London and arrange to have Frankland become his successor. Hence Frankland abruptly terminated his studies in Germany and returned to take up Playfair's former position in England. A year later Frankland became professor of chemistry at a newly established school now known as the University of Manchester. In 1857 he became lecturer in chemistry at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, and in 1863 professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution, London. For two decades Frankland also had a teaching role at the Royal School of Mines in London;[2] and he taught briefly (from 1859 to 1861) at the Royal India Military College at Addiscombe, Surrey.[3]

Edward Frankland was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1853 and awarded the Society's Royal Medal in 1857 and its Copley Medal in 1894. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1897. He died while on a holiday in Norway, and was buried near his home in Reigate, Surrey.[4]

His son Percy Frankland was also a noted chemist and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Scientific work[edit]

Edward Frankland

From an early age, Frankland engaged in original research with great success. Analytical problems, such as the isolation of certain organic radicals, attracted his attention at first, but he soon turned to chemical syntheses, and he was only about twenty-five years of age when an investigation, doubtless suggested by the work of his master, Robert Bunsen and Hermann Kolbe, on cacodyl, yielded the interesting discovery of organometallic compounds. After his return to England he achieved the synthesis of diethylzinc and dimethylzinc by the reaction of ethyl iodide and methyl iodide with metallic zinc.[5]

The theoretical deductions Frankland drew from considering these bodies were even more interesting and important than the bodies themselves. Perceiving a molecular isonomy between them and the inorganic compounds of the metals from which they may be formed, Frankland saw their true molecular type in the oxygen, sulphur or chlorine compounds of those metals, from which he held them to be derived by the substitution of an organic group for the oxygen, sulphur, &c. In this way they enabled him to overthrow the theory of conjugate compounds, and they further led him in 1852 to publish the conception that the atoms of each elementary substance have a definite saturation capacity, so that they can only combine with a certain limited number of the atoms of other elements. The theory of valency thus founded has dominated the subsequent development of chemical doctrine, and forms the groundwork upon which the fabric of modern structural chemistry reposes.

In applied chemistry Frankland's great work was in connection with water-supply. Appointed a member of the second royal commission on the pollution of rivers in 1868, he was provided by the government with a completely equipped laboratory, in which, for a period of six years, he carried on the inquiries necessary for the purposes of that body, and was thus the means of bringing to light an enormous amount of valuable information respecting the contamination of rivers by sewage, trade-refuse, &c., and the purification of water for domestic use. In 1865, when he succeeded August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the School of Mines, he undertook the duty of making monthly reports to the registrar-general on the character of the water supplied to London, and these he continued down to the end of his life. At one time he was an unsparing critic of its quality, but in later years he became strongly convinced of its general excellence and wholesomeness.

Edward Frankland

Frankland's analyses were both chemical and bacteriological, and his dissatisfaction with the processes in vogue for the former at the time of his appointment caused him to spend two years in devising new and more accurate methods. In 1859 Frankland passed a night on the very top of Mont Blanc in company with John Tyndall. One of the purposes of the expedition was to discover whether the rate of combustion of a candle varies with the density of the atmosphere in which it is burnt, a question which was answered in the negative. Other observations made by Frankland at the time formed the starting-point of a series of experiments which yielded far-reaching results. He noticed that at the summit the candle gave a very poor light, and was thereby led to investigate the effect produced on luminous flames by varying the pressure of the atmosphere in which they are burning. He found that pressure increases luminosity, so that hydrogen, for example, the flame of which gives no light in normal circumstances, burns with a luminous flame under a pressure of ten or twenty atmospheres, and the inference he drew was that the presence of solid particles is not the only factor that determines the light-giving power of a flame, Further, he showed that the spectrum of a dense ignited gas resembles that of an incandescent liquid or solid, and he traced a gradual change in the spectrum of an incandescent gas under increasing pressure, the sharp lines observable when it is extremely attenuated broadening out to nebulous bands as the pressure rises, till they merge in the continuous spectrum as the gas approaches a density comparable with that of the liquid state. An application of these results to solar physics in conjunction with Sir Norman Lockyer led to the view that at least the external layers of the sun cannot consist of matter in the liquid or solid forms, but must be composed of gases or vapours.

Frankland and Lockyer were also the discoverers of helium, along with Pierre Jules César Janssen. In 1868 they noticed, in the solar spectrum, a bright yellow line which did not correspond to any substance then known. It was this line which they attributed to the then hypothetical element, helium. This was the first time an element was discovered on an extraterrestrial world before being found on the earth.


In 1862, 1864, was invited to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on Air and Water; The Chemistry of a Coal and The Chemistry of Gases respectively.


  • Ueber die Isolirung des Aethyls. Inaugural-Dissertation, welche mit Genehmigung der philosophischen Facultät zu Marburg zur Erlangung der Doctorwürde einreicht Edward Frankland aus Lancaster. Marburg, 1849. Druck von George Westermann in Braunschweig. [45 pages].
  • How to teach chemistry by Edward Frankland (1875)
  • Water analysis for sanitary purposes by Edward Frankland (1880)


  1. ^ William A. Tilden (1921) Famous Chemists: The Men and Their Work.
  2. ^ Colin A. Russell (4 December 2003). Edward Frankland: Chemistry, Controversy and Conspiracy in Victorian England. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-54581-5. Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  3. ^ Farrington, Anthony (1976). The Records of the East India College, Haileybury, & other institutions. London: H.M.S.O. pp. 119–21. 
  4. ^ Russell, Colin A. (1996). Edward Frankland: Chemistry, Controversy and Conspiracy in Victorian England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 508. 
  5. ^ Dietmar Seyferth (2001). "Zinc Alkyls, Edward Frankland, and the Beginnings of Main-Group Organometallic Chemistry". Organometallics 20: 2940–2955. doi:10.1021/om010439f. 

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