Discovery and use

Hydrogen gas, H2, was first artificially produced and formally described by T. Von Hohenheim (also known as Paracelsus, 1493–1541) via the mixing of metals with strong acids. He was unaware that the flammable gas produced by this chemical reaction was a new chemical element.

In 1671, Robert Boyle rediscovered and described the reaction between iron filings and dilute acids, which results in the production of hydrogen gas. In 1766, Henry Cavendish was the first to recognize hydrogen gas as a discrete substance, by identifying the gas from a metal-acid reaction as "inflammable air" and further finding in 1781 that the gas produces water when burned. He is usually given credit for its discovery as an element.In 1783, Antoine Lavoisier gave the element the name of hydrogen (from the Greek hydro meaning water and genes meaning creator) when he and Laplace reproduced Cavendish's finding that water is produced when hydrogen is burned.

Hydrogen was liquefied for the first time by James Dewar in 1898 by using his invention, the vacuum flask. He produced solid hydrogen the next year. Deuterium was discovered in December 1931 by Harold Urey, and tritium was prepared in 1934 by Ernest Rutherford, Mark Oliphant, and Paul Harteck. Heavy water, which consists of deuterium in the place of regular hydrogen, was discovered by Urey's group in 1932. One of the first uses of H2 was for limelight.

The first hydrogen-filled balloon was invented by Jacques Charles in 1783. Hydrogen provided the lift for the first reliable form of air-travel following the 1852 invention of the first hydrogen-lifted airship by Henri Giffard. German count Ferdinand von Zeppelin promoted the idea of rigid airships lifted by hydrogen that later were called Zeppelins; the first of which had its maiden flight in 1900. Regularly-scheduled flights started in 1910 and by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 they had carried 35,000 passengers without a serious incident. Hydrogen-lifted airships were used as observation platforms and bombers during the war.

The first non-stop transatlantic crossing was made by the British airship R34 in 1919. Regular passenger service resumed in the 1920s and the discovery of helium reserves in the United States promised increased safety, but the U.S. government refused to sell the gas for this purpose. Therefore, H2 was used in the Hindenburg airship, which was destroyed in a midair fire over New Jersey on 6 May 1937. The incident was broadcast live on radio and filmed. Ignition of leaking hydrogen as widely assumed to be the cause but later investigations pointed to ignition of the aluminumized fabric coating by static electricity. But the damage to hydrogen's reputation as a lifting gas was already done.


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