Agnes Pockels

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Agnes Pockels
Agnes Pockels.jpg
Born(1862-02-14)February 14, 1862
DiedNovember 21, 1935(1935-11-21) (aged 73)
Known forPioneer of surface science
Scientific career

Agnes Luise Wilhelmine Pockels (February 14, 1862 – November 21, 1935) was a German pioneer in chemistry. Her work was fundamental in establishing the modern discipline known as surface science, which describes the properties of liquid and solid surfaces.[1] Agnes got interested in these properties early on from washing dishes.

Early life and education[edit]

Pockels was born in Venice, Italy, in 1862. At the time, Venice was under Austrian rule, and Pockels' father served in the Austrian Army. When he fell sick, the family moved in 1871 to Brunswick, Lower Saxony, which was part of the nascent German Empire.[1] There, Pockels attended the Municipal High School for Girls.[2] Chemistry from her interest in science as a child. Growing up for Agnes, women were not allowed to enter universities to study. Pockels mentioned that "I had a passionate interest in natural science, especially physics, and would have liked to study“ (Agnes Pockels) in Autobiographical Notes in W. Ostwald (1932).

As a child, Pockels was interested in science, and would have liked to study physics.[3] In those days, however, women in Germany had no access to universities. It was only through her younger brother, the physicist Friedrich Carl Alwin Pockels, that she gained access to scientific literature.[1] Pockels studied science at home while caring for her parents.

Middle Life[edit]

Agnes Pockels younger brother Friedrich, however, also wanted to study physics and took a degree at the University of Göttingen. Friedrich would take textbooks for the university and send them to Agnes to help her study from home.  Pockels published her first paper, "Surface Tension" with the help of John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh in 1891. After this was released, her study of surface films started to take off. Later on, she continued to publish a lot of different papers and eventually recognized as a Surface science pioneer. It was known that Pockels sent a letter to Rayleigh after reading about his Results in “Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau”. Pockels also submitted a lot of her papers to German journals while watching after her sick parents. Agnes brother, Friedrich Carl Alwin Pockels died in 1913. Later on, she realizes she had lost all contact to her field and no longer had contact with interest in her field.

Research and later life[edit]

Agnes Pockels ca1892.jpg

Pockels discovered the influence of impurities on the surface tension of fluids doing the dishes in her own kitchen. She was reported to be a caretaker of her parents. Pockels spent much time cooking and cleaning with various oils, soaps, and other household products. Despite her lack of formal training, Pockels was able to measure the surface tension of water by devising an apparatus known as the slide trough, a key instrument in the new discipline of surface science. Using an improved version of this slide trough, American chemist Irving Langmuir made additional discoveries on the properties of surface molecules, which earned him a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1932.[4] Pockels' device is a direct antecedent of the Langmuir–Blodgett trough,[5] developed later by Langmuir and physicist Katharine Blodgett. Pockels spent the last leg of her life caring for her sick parents which she noted to be "very challenging". During Pockels later years, she lived as an aunt known as "Auntie Agnes."

In 1891, with the help of Lord Rayleigh, Pockels published her first paper, "Surface Tension," on her measurements in the journal Nature.[6] Thus began her career studying surface films. She never received a formal appointment, but she published a number of papers and eventually received recognition as a pioneer in the new field of surface science. Commentators wrote: "When Langmuir received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1932, for his work in investigating monolayers on solids and on liquids, part of his achievement was [...] founded on original experiments first made with a button and a thin tray, by a young lady of 18 who had had no formal scientific training."[7]

Pockels died in 1935 in Brunswick, Germany.

Honors and awards[edit]

In 1931, together with Henri Devaux, Pockels received the Laura Leonard award from the Colloid Society. In the following year, the Braunschweig University of Technology granted her an honorary PhD.[1] Agnes Pockels primary study was with Surface science; however, she was also interested in chemistry and physics as well. Pockels was an early experimenter with surface science and physics. Pockels supposedly studied Surface tension a lot and put almost 10 years of studies into one journal. Agnes Pockels was generally interested in her studies from the "support of Lord Rayleigh and the publications in Nature." Agnes Pockels had a lot of late recognition when she was older. She was a nominee in the Annual Laura-R.-Leonard Prize. She was also the first women to win the "Dr. h. c. from the Technical University Braunschweig" on her 70th birthday.



  • "Surface Tension", (1891) Nature, 46, 437.
  • "On the relative contamination of the water-surface by equal quantities of different substances", (1892) Nature 47, 418.
  • "Relations between the surface tension and relative contamination of water surfaces", (1893) Nature, 48, 152.
  • "On the spreading of oil upon water", (1894) Nature 50, 223.
  • "Beobachtungen über die Adhäsion verschiedener Flüssigkeiten an Glas", (Observations about the Adhesion of Different Liquids on Glass), (1898) Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau, 14, 190.
  • "Randwinkel gesättigter Lösungen an Kristallen" (Contact Angles of Saturated Solutions on Crystals), (1899), Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau, 14, 383.
  • "Untersuchungen von Grenzflächenspannungen mit der Cohäsionswaage", (Investigations of the Surface Tension with the Cohesion Balance), (1899) Annalen der Physik, 67, 668.
  • "Über das spontane Sinken der Oberflächenspannung von Wasser, wässerigen Lösungen und Emulsionen"', (On the Spontaneous Decrease of the Surface Tension of Water, Aqueous Solutions and Emulsions), (1902) Annalen der Physik, 8, 854.
  • "Über Randwinkel und Ausbreitung von Flüssigkeiten auf festen Körpern" (On Contact Angles and the Flow of Fluids on Solid Bodies), (1914) Physikalische Zeitschrift, 15, 39.
  • "Zur Frage der zeitlichen Veränderung der Oberflächenspannun"' (On the Changes of the Surface Tension with Time), (1916) Physikalische Zeitschrift, 17, 141
  • "Über die Ausbreitung reiner und gemischter Flüssigkeiten auf Wasser" (On the Spreading of Pure and Mixed Liquids on Water) (1916) Physikalische Zeitschrift, 17, 142.
  • "Die Anomalie der Wasseroberfläche" (The Anomalous State of the Water Surface) (1917) Die Naturwissenschaften, 5, 137 u. 149.
  • "Zur Frage der Ölflecke auf Seen" (On Oil Stains on Lakes) (1918) Die Naturwissenschaften, 6, 118.
  • "The measurement of surface tension with the balance" (1926) Science 64, 304.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Byers, Nina (ed); Williams, Gary (2010). Out of the Shadows : Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 36–42. ISBN 9780521169622.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  2. ^ "150th Birthday of Agnes Pockels". ChemViews. 14 February 2012. Retrieved 13 July 2013.
  3. ^ Helm, Christiane A.; Ernst-Moritz Arndt; Uni Greifswald. "Agnes Pockels: Life, Letters and Papers". American Physical Society. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1932". Nobel Retrieved 13 July 2013.
  5. ^ "Agnes Pockels: The Invention of the "Slide Trough"". X Timeline. Archived from the original on 18 October 2013. Retrieved 13 July 2013.
  6. ^ Pockels, Agnes (12 March 1891). "Surface Tension" (PDF). Nature. 43 (1891): 437–439. doi:10.1038/043437c0. S2CID 4029431. Retrieved 27 Nov 2019.
  7. ^ "Agnes Pockels | 175 Faces of Chemistry". Retrieved 2018-12-19.

Additional resources[edit]

  • C.H. Giles and S.D. Forrester, "The origins of the surface film balance: Studies in the early history of surface chemistry, part 3", Chemistry and Industry, pp. 43–53 (9 January 1971). (Note: This article contains one of the most detailed story on Agnes Pockels, including photos on her and her family.)
  • Charles Tanford, Ben Franklin stilled the waves: An informal history of pouring oil on water with reflections on the ups and downs of scientific life in general, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • M. Elizabeth Derrick, "Agnes Pockels, 1862-1935", Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 59, no. 12, pp. 1030–1031 (Dec. 1982).
  • Andrea Kruse and Sonja M. Schwarzl. "Zum Beispiel Agnes Pockels." In: Nachrichten aus der Chemie, 06, 2002.

External links[edit]