Christian Schonbein

Schonbein, Christian Frederick. Born at Metringen, Germany, 18th October 1799; died at Baden Baden, Germany, 29th August 1868. Investigated the properties of ozone and first manufactured cellulose nitrate plastics and high explosives.

Schonbein began his chemical career as an apprentice in a German pharmaceutical plant. Studying in his limited spare time he landed a job teaching chemistry in England, where he was able to attend lectures by the eminant Michael Faraday, with whom he became a regular correspondent. Despite his lack of formal training, he was elected to the chair of Chemistry at Basle, where he taught chemistry for forty years.

Schonbein published more than 300 scientific papers in his career and is best remembered for his early studies of ozone, which he named, and for his production of cellulose nitrate by the reaction of nitric and sulfuric acids with cotton. In a letter to Faraday, he presaged the birth of the plastics industry when he described beautiful vessels which he had fashioned from cellulose nitrate. While cellulose nitrate would become the basis for collodion and celluloid plastics, it would have even farther-reaching applications as the basis for “smokeless powder” and other high explosives.

Source: Journal of Chemical Education, pp. 432 and 677, 1929.