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In the Beginning ...

John Daniell

Painted portrait of John Frederic DaniellJohn Frederic Daniell, Professor of Chemistry, 1831-1845The chemist, John Frederic Daniell (1790-1845) was a self-taught polymath who acquired a precocious interest in chemistry after a period of work in the sugar-refining factory of a relative.

Daniell attended medical lectures at Windmill Street in London and was elected to the Royal Society in 1814, aged just 24, largely as a result of his pioneering meteorological and climatological researches.

His experiments, carried out at his father's laboratory in Lincoln's Inn Fields, were attended by many of the leading scientists of the day. He built up a considerable collection of rocks and minerals reflecting his abiding interest in geology, which Daniell augmented by samples gathered in 1815 during his geological tour of the British Isles.

Daniell's meteorological observations began in earnest in 1820 when he developed a new measurement device, the dew-point hygrometer, followed by important work on the atmosphere of hothouses and later in standardising meteorological observations throughout the British Empire.

Daniell also became a practical chemist of distinction, promoting the use of gas lighting, helping to establish the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and acting as Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society from 1839 to 1845.

His most important contribution to science followed his appointment as Professor of Chemistry at King's College in 1831 when he developed one of the earliest types of battery and a significant improvement on the existing Voltaic cell, the so-called Daniell constant cell. This provided a reliable supply of electricity necessary for the rapid growth of the Anglo-American telegraph network during the 1830s and 40s.

Daniell was awarded the Copley and Royal medals by the Royal Society for his contribution to the study of electricity and electrolysis. His lectures at King's were also extremely popular, reflecting his flair for demonstration allied to meticulous habits of observation and experiment that earned the admiration of friends and colleagues who included Michael Faraday, Joseph Gay-Lussac, Charles Babbage and the polar navigator, John Ross.

Daniell collapsed and died at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1845.

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