Today in Chemistry History – Emil Erlenmeyer’s Birthday

The Erlenmeyer flask is a piece
of glassware most of us have likely used at some point. The tapered sides and
narrow neck of this flask allow the contents of the flask to be mixed by
swirling, without risk of spillage, making them suitable for titrations. By
placing it under the buret and adding solvent and the indicator in Erlenmeyer
flask. Such features similarly make the flask suitable for boiling liquids. Hot
vapors condense on the upper section of the Erlenmeyer flask, reducing solvent
loss. Erlenmeyer flasks’ narrow necks can also support filter funnels.

As Compound Interest notes “The
Erlenmeyer flask’s popularity lies in its utility. Its flat base means it isn’t
easily toppled, unlike the round-bottomed flasks which can also be found in the
laboratory. Its tapered, cone-like shape, coupled with its narrow neck, means
that liquids inside it can be swirled without spilling easily. Additionally,
the sides minimise loss of liquids from the flask when they are heated, as
vapours condense on the sides. The narrow neck can also be plugged with a
rubber or glass stopper.”

Who was Erlenmeyer?

Erlenmeyer was the son of Dr.
Friedrich Erlenmeyer, a Protestant theologian. He enrolled in the University of
Giessen to study medicine, but after attending lectures of Justus von Liebig
changed to chemistry. In the summer of 1846 he went to Heidelberg for one year,
and studied physics, botany and mineralogy, returning to Giessen in 1847. After
serving as assistant to H. Will and then to Carl Remigius Fresenius, Erlenmeyer
decided to devote himself to pharmaceutical chemistry. For this purpose he
studied in Nassau, where he passed the state pharmaceutical examination, and
shortly afterwards acquired an apothecary’s business, first at Katzenelnbogen
and then in Wiesbaden. He became dissatisfied with pharmacy and returned to
chemistry, finishing his doctorate at Giessen in 1850.

In 1855 he moved to Heidelberg
and there converted a shed into a private laboratory. In 1857 he became
privatdocent and his habilitation thesis “On the manufacture of the
artificial manure known as superphosphate” contained a description of several
crystalline substances which greatly interested Robert Bunsen. It was while at
Heidelberg that Erlenmeyer was brought under the influence of August Kekulé,
whose theoretical views he was one of the first to adopt. He was the first to
suggest, in 1862, that double and triple bonds could form between carbon atoms,
and he made other important contributions to the development of theories of
molecular structure.

In 1863 he became associate
professor at the University of Heidelberg. In 1868 he was hired as full
professor in Munich to take charge of the laboratories of the new Munich
Polytechnic School, a post which he held until his retirement from teaching in
1883.

His work mostly focused on
theoretical chemistry, where he suggested the formula for naphthalene and
formulated the Erlenmeyer rule: alcohols in which the hydroxyl group is
attached directly to a double-bonded carbon atom become aldehydes or ketones.

Erlenmeyer’s practical
investigations were concerned mostly with aliphatic compounds. In 1859 he
synthesised aminohexoic acid and proceeded to study the general behaviour of
albuminoids on hydrolysis. He worked out methods to determine the relative
amounts of leucine and tyrosine, which are produced during the degradation of
several substances of this class, and was the first (1860) to understand the
nature of glycide and to suggest that this substance is related to glycerol in
the same way as is metaphosphoric acid to orthophosphoric acid. In the
following year he studied the action of hydroiodic acid on glycerol, and showed
that the product was isopropyl- and not propyl iodide. His investigations of
the higher alcohols produced during fermentation yielded the important proof
that these alcohols do not belong to the normal series.

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Posted on June 29, 2016, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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