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17 October 1997

The Smell of a Hard Shower

Tomorrow is the birthday of Christian Schoenbein, a German chemist born in 1799 who named ozone and invented the first synthetic explosive. Schoenbein's work on ozone was considered a classic at the time. He noted its presence in rainwater after thunderstorms and named the gas ozone for its peculiar smell (ozo is Greek for smell). Later experiments showed that sending a current through pure, dry oxygen (O2) creates ozone (O3).

In 1845 Schoenbein invented a powerful explosive called cellulose nitrate, or gun cotton. The discovery had its origins in a laboratory accident. Schoenbein mopped up some spilled chemicals with a cotton apron, leaving it to dry outside in the wind. The apron exploded, after which Schoenbein analyzed the combination of chemicals responsible for the blast. Although he did not succeed in manufacturing cellulose nitrate, Schoenbein foresaw the development of the plastics industry.

[Source: Trevor I. Williams, Ed., A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists (John Wiley & Sons, New York, ed. 3, 1982).]

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© 1997 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.