William Ramsay, the only child of civil engineer and businessman William Ramsay and his wife Catherine, was born on October 2, 1852, in Glasgow, Scotland. Despite the scientific background of his family, he was expected to study for the ministry. He completed his secondary education at the Glasgow Academy and in 1866 entered the University of Glasgow, where he pursued a standard course of study in the classics. He became interested in chemistry when he read about gunpowder manufacture in a textbook, and he began attending lectures on chemistry and physics as a result. Starting in 1869, he also worked as a chemical apprentice to Glasgow City Analyst Robert Tatlock.
From April 1871 to August 1872, Ramsay worked on toluic and nitrotoluic acids under Rudolf Fittig at the University of Tübingen; these research efforts earned him a Ph.D. at the age of nineteen. In 1872 he became an assistant in chemistry at the Anderson College (now the Royal Technical College) in Glasgow and in 1874 a tutorial assistant at the University of Glasgow. He was appointed a professor of chemistry at University College, Bristol, in 1880. In 1887 he became a professor of inorganic chemistry at University College, London, where he remained until his retirement in 1913.
Ramsay was a scientist of exceptionally wide interests and talents. His earliest works centered on organic chemistry. Beginning in the 1880s, he pursued topics related to physical chemistry, such as stoichiometry, thermodynamics, surface tension, density, molecular weights, and the critical states of liquids and vapors. However, his most important achievements involved inorganic chemistry.
In 1785 English chemist Henry Cavendish suggested that, in addition to nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor, air might contain another gas. In 1892 Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt) found that nitrogen prepared from ammonia (NH 3 ) was less dense than nitrogen prepared from air. He reported his results in the journal Nature and asked readers to suggest an explanation for the discrepancy, which was beyond experimental error. At an 1894 meeting of the Royal Society , Lord Rayleigh posited that chemically prepared nitrogen might be contaminated with a less dense gas.
Ramsay believed that, on the contrary, atmospheric nitrogen might contain a denser gas. In large-scale experiments he passed atmospheric nitrogen over hot magnesium, which reacted to form solid magnesium nitride (Mg 3 N 2 ) and left behind a small amount of unreactive gas. When he analyzed the gas spectroscopically, he observed, in addition to the lines of nitrogen, lines of a gas at that point still unknown. Simultaneously, Rayleigh repeated Cavendish's experiments and confirmed the presence of an unknown gas (1/107 of the original volume).
On August 13, 1894, Rayleigh and Ramsay announced their discovery of a new element in the atmosphere to the British Association at Oxford. Because of its unreactivity, they later called the gas argon, from the Greek word meaning "lazy." Ramsay suggested that argon be placed within a new group of zero-valent elements in the Periodic Table, between chlorine and potassium. In 1895 Ramsay and, independently, Per Theodor Cleve and Nils Abraham Langlet in Sweden, discovered helium, previously known from its solar spectrum, in a radioactive mineral. Also in 1895, Ramsay and the English chemist Morris W. Travers discovered the inert gases krypton (from the Greek, meaning "hidden"), neon (from the Greek, meaning "new"), and xenon (from the Greek, meaning "stranger"). From 1962, when Englishborn American chemist Neil Bartlett prepared xenon hexafluoroplatinate(V), XePtF 6 , inert gases became known as "noble gases."
In 1904 Ramsay received the Nobel Prize in chemistry "in recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the periodic system," becoming the first British recipient of this award.
Kauffman, George B., and Priebe, Paul M. (1990). "The Emil Fischer–William Ramsay Friendship: The Tragedy of Scientists in War." Journal of Chemical Education 67: 93–101.
Moureu, Charles (1919). "William Ramsay." Revue Scientifique 10: 609–618. Reprinted in Farber, Eduard, ed. . Great Chemists. New York: Interscience Publishers.
Ramsay, William (1904). "The Rare Gases of the Atmosphere, Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1904." In Nobel Lectures Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies: Chemistry 1901–1921 (1966). New York: Elsevier. Also available from http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/1904/ramsay-lecture.html .
Tilden, William A. (1918). Sir William Ramsay K.C.B., F.R.S.: Memorials of His Life and Work. London: Macmillan.
Travers, Morris W. (1956). A Life of Sir William Ramsay K.C.B., F.R.S. London: Arnold.