Forerunners of Chemical Engineering

To mark the centennial anniversary of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in 2008, members of the Institute developed lists of people who contributed to the profession and society in a variety of times and ways. These lists highlight individuals for their contributions before and during World War II (“Foundation Age”) and after (“Modern Era”), and also identify some of the profession’s forerunners.

The following “Forerunners of Importance” illustrate how chemical engineering thought and practice evolved through history, beginning well before the formal founding of the profession.


1515 Leonardo da Vinci conceived use of parabolic mirror concentrators for dyeing cloth

mid-1700s Daniel Bernouli derived equation relating potential and dynamic flow energies

mid-1700s Leonhard Euler proposed equations describing conservation of mass and momentum for inviscid fluids

1775Joseph Priestley invented soda water as a cure for scurvy (it didn't); published papers on electrical discharges and electrical conductivitities of charcoals

1780 – Nicolas LeBlanc developed a process for making soda ash from common salt; the process was used to make glass, soap, paper and more

early 1800s – Claude-Louis Navier (with George Stokes), added viscous transport to Euler equations

early 1800s – Antoine Lavoisier built solar furnace that could melt platinum

1802 – Éleuthère Irénée du Pont broke ground for a superior explosives plant on Brandywine River, Delaware

1823 – Charles Macintosh patented waterproofing method using India rubber dissolved in coal-tar to cement layers of wool cloth together

1829 – Jean Claude Eugène Peclet developed relationship relating rate of advection of a flow to its rate of diffusion

1829 – Thomas Graham found that gas diffusion is inversely proportional to the square root of densities and, hence, molecular weights

1839 – Charles Goodyear accidentally vulcanized rubber lump while attempting to harden gum by boiling with sulfur

1843 – Norbert Rillieux invented first successful multiple-effect vacuum process for producing sugar

1845 – Peter Cooper patented process for manufacturing gelatin (Jell-O); founded first free college in U.S. (Cooper Union, New York, NY)

1846 – William T. G. Morton developed ether as surgical anesthetic

1855 – Adolf Eugen Fick formulated law of gas diffusion across membranes, which led to technique to measure cardiac output

1856 – William Henry Perkin (at age 18) patented conversion of aniline into purplish mixture after alcohol extraction

1859 – William A. (“Uncle Billy”) Smith produced oil drilling tools and drilled Edwin Drake’s Titusville, PA, oil well; was paid $2.50/day

1861 – Ernest Solvay developed process for manufacturing soda ash using ammonia, carbon dioxide and lime soda

1860s – John Hyatt invented celluloid by combining nitrocellulose, camphor and alcohol heated under pressure

1866 – Ludwig Boltzmann formulated kinetic theory of gases (early statistical mechanics concept); with Maxwell, found that average molecular motion is the same in all directions

1869 – Johannes Diderik van der Waals established gas/liquid relationships; accounted for molecular volumes/forces

1871 – John William (Lord Rayleigh)Strutt discovered scattering of light or other electromagnetic radiation by particles much smaller than the wavelength of the light

1872 – Angus Smith was the first environmentalist; published “Air and Rain” studies of the chemistry of atmospheric precipitation

1876 – Josiah Willard Gibbs developed graphical method for analyzing multi-phase chemical systems

1883 – Osborne Reynolds formulated fundamental relationships for transitions from laminar to turbulent flow

1886 – Charles Hall invented electrolytic aluminum manufacturing process

1886 – Ivan Levinstein defined chemical engineering as the conversion of laboratory processes into industrial ones

1888 – Lewis Norton developed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's “Course X,” which combined mechanical engineering with industrial chemistry

1889 – Herbert Dow, creator of the modern American chemical industry; thought of as both an engineer and a chemist

1890 – Stephen Babcock developed milk quality tester, allowing widespread use of dairy products; paved the way for vitamins A and D

1891 –Herman Frasch invented underground extraction process using superheated water to liquefy/deliver sulfur from deep deposits

1893 – E. Sorel developed mathematical basis for interpretation of distillation of binary solutions; published “La rectification de l’alcohol”

1900 – Rudolf T. J. Knietsch recognized convection and diffusion mixing as key in vapor-phase oxidation of sulfur dioxide to sulfuric acid

1902 – Friedrich Goppelsroeder identified chemical compositions of dyes, milk, alkaloids and wine using the capillarity of paper; later became known as the grandfather of paper chromatography

1904 – George E. Davis published chemical engineering concepts as “A Handbook of Chemical Engineering”

1904 – Ludwig Prandtl revolutionized fluid mechanics with concept of a boundary layer between surfaces and moving fluids

1906 – Walther Nernst made fundamental contributions to electrochemistry, solid-state chemistry, photochemistry and more

1906 – Mikhail S. Tswett used selective adsorbents and extraction to purify chlorophyll from plants; termed it "chromatography"

1908 – Irving Langmuir formulated continuous-flow stirred-tank plug-flow equations; received 1932 Nobel Prize for monolayer and two dimensional physics

1908 – Gabriel Lippmann received Nobel Prize for reproducing colors photographically based on the phenomenon of interference

1908 – Paul Ehrlich received Nobel Prize for work in hematology and chemotherapy; predicted autoimmunity (“horror autotoxicus”)

1909 – Wilhelm Ostwald received Nobel Prize for fundamental work on catalysis, chemical equilibrium and reaction velocities

1910 – Fredrick Becket developed carbon-free chromium, tungsten, molybdenum and vanadium processes using direct oxide reductions

1912 – Theodore von Karman developed theory of boundary layers and fluid flow to calculate air resistance of aircraft and rockets, leading to the first all-metal cantilevered wing

1913 – Geoffrey Ingram Taylor introduced concept of velocity fluctuations in turbulent flows, critical to development of solid mechanics

1915 – Wilhelm Nusselt devised basic heat-transfer relationships later bearing his name

1923 – Almer McDuffie McAfee developed first viable catalytic cracking process using anhydrous aluminum chloride as catalyst

1928 – Alexander Fleming accidentally created bacteria-free penicillin annulus in staphylococcus culture even if diluted eight-hundredfold

1931 – Harold C. Urey confirmed his discovery of mass-2 hydrogen (deuterium); proposed centrifugal separation of uranium


These lists were created in a spirit of celebration, not as rankings of technical accomplishment to be cast in stone. Please keep in mind that no single list can be exhaustive or definitive. The names on these lists were suggested by many AIChE members from a variety of backgrounds and specializations.