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Friedrich Accum

Friedrich Accum

From the European Magazine (1820) engraving by James Thomson.
BornMarch 29 1769(1769-03-29)
Bückeburg, Schaumburg-Lippe
DiedJune 28 1838
Berlin, Germany
InstitutionsRoyal Institution, Surrey Institution, Gas Light and Coke Company, Gewerbeinstitut, Bauakademie

Friedrich Christian Accum or Frederick Accum (29 March 1769, Bückeburg - 28 June 1838, Berlin) was a German chemist, whose most important achievements were in the areas of gaslight, the fight against poisonous foods, and the popularizing of chemistry.

Accum lived in London from 1793 and 1821, where, as a self-employed chemist, he manufactured and sold chemical and scientific instruments, gave fee-based public lectures in practical chemistry, and collaborated with various research institutions.

Incited by Frederick Winsor, who had been promoting the foundation of a company for the introduction of gaslight in London, Accum became involve in the topic of gaslight himself. At the behest of the Gaslight and Coke Company, he carried out many experiments on this subject and in 1812 became a member of the board of the same company. The use of gaslight in both private and public contexts spread through the establishment of the first large scale gas plant, in whose design Accum had been instrumental.

In 1820, Accum published Treatise on Adulteration of Food, in which he denounced the use of poisoned foodstuffs. The work marked the beginning of a concern with nutrition. Accum was the first person to tackle the subject and to bring reach a wide audience with his work. Although his book sold extremely well, his attempts to raise public awareness in these areas made him many enemies among London foodstuff purveyors. Accum left England after a lawsuit was brought against him. He lived out the rest of his life as a teacher at an Industrial institution in Berlin.

His publications, most of which were written in English, are in a style accessible to the general public of the period. Accum thus made important contributions to the popularization of chemistry in the period.


Life and work

Youth and education

  Friedrich Accum was born on March 29, 1769 in Bückeburg, about 50 km west of Hannover. His father was from Vlotho an der Weser, and had been in an infantry regiment in the service of Count Wilhelm von Schaumburg-Lippe. In 1755, Accum's father converted from Judaism to Protestant Christianity. He soon thereafter married Judith Berth La Mottein in Bückeburg. His wife was the daughter of a hat maker, who was part of the French community in Berlin, and the granddaughter of a refugee of the Hugenot persecutions in France.

With his baptism, Accum changed his name from Markus Herz to Christian Accum. In addition to choosing the name "Christian", which means "follower of Christ", Accum's father chose to emphasis his conversion by adopting the surname Accum, which was derived from the Hebrew word "Akum“, meaning "not-Jewish“. It is not known whether he did this on his own initiative or because of pressure from his fiancee's family. In any case, after his marriage, Christian Accum became an independent shopkeeper and soap-maker, based at first at the house of his inlaws' in Bückeburg at 141 Schulstraße. He received citizenship in the city nine years after his marriage[1]. On April 2 1769, three years after his baptism, Christian Accum died at the age of 45. He was survived by Friedrich and his mother, as well as the eldest sibling Philipp Ernst, a sister Henriette Charlotte, and the eight month old Ernestine, who died at the age of five.

Friedrich Accum attended the Bückeburg Gymnasium Adolfinum and also received private tutelage in French and English. After his schooling, he finished an apprenticeship as an apothecary with the Brande family in Hanover, who were friends of the Accums.[2] The Brands also had a branch office in London and were the apothecaries to the Hanoverian King of England, George III.[3] London, as an important centre of technological development at the end of the 18th century, was to be very attractive for young, scientifically inclined people from all over Europe. Friedrich Accum went there in 1793 and worked as an assistant in the Brande apothecary in Arlington Street.

The first year in London

After working as an apothecary with Brand's office, Accum pursue scientific studies and attended medical lectures at the School of Anatomy in Great Windmill Street. He made contact with the surgeon Anthony Carlisle (1768–1842) and the London chemist William Nicholson (1753–1815), in whose journal (Nicholson’s Journal)[4] he published his first article in 1798.

On May 10, 1798 Accum married Mary Ann Simpson (* March 6, 1777; † March 1, 1816 in London). He had, in the intervening period anglicized his name to"Frederick Accum". They had eight children in all, but only two survived past childhood. His eldest, a daughter named Flora Eliza (* May 17, 1799), married Ernst Müller, with whom she had three children. Her son, Friedrich Ernst Accum (* April 3, 1801; † January 28, 1869) had with his wife, Charlotte Wilhelmina Johanna Henkel, four children, whose direct descents still continue, but with the surname Accum.[5]

In the fall of 1799, a translation of Franz Carl Achard's ground-breaking work on the production of sugar from beets appeared in Nicholson’s Journal. Up until then, sugar cane which was grown overseas was the only plant from which sugar could be made. As this made possible the creation of a domestic sugar industry, it was greeted with great interest. A short time after the article's publication, Accum had samples of sugar beet sent from Berlin, and presented them to William Nicholson. It was the first sugar beets that had arrived to England, and Nicholson published a detailed report of his investigations in the January edition of his journal, in which he established that sugar from beets was as good in taste as sugar from sugarcane.

Laboratory worker, merchant and private tutor

In 1800, Accum and his family moved from 17 Haymarket to 11 Old Compton Street, where he was to live for the next twenty years, and which, in addition to serving as his house, was also a school, a laboratory where he performed experiments, and a store for chemicals and scientfic instruments. On his business cards, which Accum used to advertise his services, he described his activities as follows:

Mr Accum acquaints the Patrons and Amateurs of Chemistry that he continues to give private Courses of Lectures on Operative and Philosophical Chemistry, Practical Pharmacy and the Art of Analysis, as well as to take Resident Pupils in his House, and that he keeps constantly on sale in as pure a state as possible, all the Re-Agents and Articles of Research made use of in Experimental Chemistry, together with a complete Collection of Chemical Apparatus and Instruments calculated to Suit the conveniences of Different Purchasers.[6]

Accum distributed a catalog of his wares from his Old Compton Street store and also sent it to other cities in England and abroad when requested.

Accum's laboratory in Old Compton Street was for many years the only institution in England in which, in addition to theoretical lectures on chemistry, training in laboratory practice was also provided. Accum's teaching attracted, at least in part, a prominent audience. His listeners included the well-known London politician and later prime minister Lord Palmerston, the Duke of Bedford, and the Duke of Northumberland. In addition, Accums' laboratory was the first in Europe in which was visited by students and scientist from the US, among which were Benjamin Silliman and William Dandridge Peck. When Silliman later became Professor of chemistry at Yale College (precursor to Yale University) in New Haven, he ordered his first laboratory equipment from Accum in London. Accum's biographer, Charles Albert Browne, surmised in his 1925 work that some of the older American college still have sales receipts from Accum's London business. [7]

With the development of new laboratory apparatus, Accum positioned himself in mid-market with respect to cost and usability. Amateurs could also perform simple chemical investigations in his establishment. Accum developed portable laboratory kits, intended for farmers, for the analysis of soils and stones. For prices ranging from three to eighty pounds sterling, these chests were the first truly portable laboratories.

Teacher and researcher

In March 1801, Frederick Accum was offered a position at the Royal Institution in Ablemarle Street, a research institute founded two years earlier by the Count Rumford [8]. He worked there as a laboratory assistant under Humphry Davy, who had been hired at same time as director of the laboratory, and would later become the president of the Royal Society. Accum’s employment at the Royal Institution was , however, not extended, as he left on his own initiative in September of 1803. His biographer, R. J. Cole, conjectures that there was a connection with the contemporary departure for Paris of Count Rumford, who would marry the Marie Lavoisier, the widow of famous chemist, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier[9]. Rumford had been the motivating force behind Accum’s hiring by the Royal Institution, and hence the possible connection with Accum’s exit.

Up to 1803, Accum published a series of articles in Nicholson’s Journal, which spanned a wide array of subjects: from investigating the possibility of determining the purity of medicines, to the existence of benzoic acids in vanilla extract, to observations about the explosivity of sulphur-phosphorus mixtures.[10] Of far greater significance was the 1803 publication of his System of Theoretical and Practical Chemistry. Cole, Accum's biographer, states that "it was the first text-book of general chemistry written in the English language to be based on Lavoisier’s new principles; it is outstanding, also, in that it is written in a popular style, the subject matter being graduated as with a modern text-book."[11]


Accum held his first lecture on chemistry and mineralogy in a small room in his house on Old Compton Street. His audience, however, grew so rapidly that he soon had to rent the Medical Theatre in Cork Street. Such was the interest among Londoners for Accum’s lectures that, after his resignation from the Royal Institution, he took a position at the Surrey Institution on Blackfriars road. An advertisement in The Times on 6 January indicates the Accm offered a course on mineralogy and the chemical analysis of metals every Wednesday evening.[13]

His increasing interest in Mineralogy at this time is also apparent from the titles of two books which he authored between 1803 and 1809. The first was a two volume work which appeared in 1804 entitled A Practical Essay on the Analysis of Minerals and was subsequently reissued in 1808 as A Manual of Analytical Mineralogy. In 1809 he published Analysis of a Course of Lectures on Mineralogy. While at the Surrey Institution, Accum also published, beginning in 1808, a series of articles on the chemical properties and composition of mineral water in Alexander Tilloch's Philosophical Journal.

When the Parisian saltpetre manufacturer Bernard Courtois in 1811 made iodine for the first time from the kelp ash, his discovery was greeted with great interest by experts. Accum was among the first chemists in England to undertake experiments to isolate iodine. In two articles published in Tilloch's Philosophical Journal in January and February of 1814, Accum described the iodine content of different keinds of seaweed and gave a detailed account of a process which could be used for iodine production.

Accum's role in the history of gaslight

The industrial development of the late 18th and early 19th centuries centuries was by and large independent of any sort of artificial lighting. Lighting a textile factory with candles or oil lamp meant an enormous expenditure was not possible simply on economical grounds.With the advent of industrial means of production, new textile halls were not only physically larger, but also had to be lighted longer and more clearly. Driven by a great demand, and made possible through Lavoisier's theoretical work regarding the role of oxygen in combustion, the end of the 18th century saw an continuous series of improvements in lighting technology.[14]

The production of gases from coal had been observed by Henry Clayton in a letter to Robert Boyle in the 17th century. The letter was only published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1739. Clayton wrote:

I then got some Coal from one of the Pits nearest thereunto, which I distilled in a Retort in an open Fire. At first there came over only Phlegm, afterwards a black Oil,and then likewise a Spirit arose, which I could noways condense, but it forced my Lute, or broke my Glasses. Once, when it had forced the Lute, coming close thereto, in order to try to repair it, I observed that the Spirit which issued out caught Fire at the Flame of the Candle, and continued burning with Violence as it issued out, in a Stream, which 1 blew out, and lighted again, alternately, for several times.[15]

This sort of knowledge did not, however, find any practical application until the end of the 18th century. The gas produced during the coking of coal was allow to escape unused until William Murdock began to promote coal gas as an illuminant. Other such experiments had been done by, for example, George Dixon in 1780 in Cockfield, Jean-Pierre Minckelers in 1785 in Louvain, Archibald Cochrane in 1787 at his estate Culross Abbey, but these were all limited in extent. The true prototype for later gasworks was first construct in 1802 at the Soho Foundry and in 1805 at a George Lee's cotton mill in Salford close to Manchester. The skepticism faced by the new technology was, however, great. As late as 1810 Murdock was asked in a committee of the House of Commons: "Do you mean to tell us that it will be possible to have a light without a wick?“[16]. It took until the second decade of the 19th century before gaslight spread from industrial mills to urban street lighting and domestic lighting. Accum played a crucial role in this development.


Accum became involved with the production of gas for lighting purposes through the efforts of Friedrich Albert Winsor (1763–1830), another German emigré, who had been waging a multiyear publicity campaign. Accum was called before a Parliamentary committee in 1809 looking into granting a charter for a gaslight company Winsor had been promoting. While unsuccessful in its first attempt, the bill passed in 1810, and the company was incorporated under the name "Gas Light and Coke Company“[17]. The company met the conditions laid out in the bill, and began operating in 1812, with Accum as a member of the board. Accum directed the construction of a gas plant on Curtain Road, which was the first such plant in the history of gaslight. From then on, gaslight was no longer limited to industrial mills and was introduced into urban life. Westminster Bridge was lighted with gas lamps in 1813, and a year later, streets in Westminster itself. In 1815, Accum published "Description of the Process of Manufacturing Coal-Gas". In the introduction, Accum compared the new form gas utility with the water companies that had been operating in London since the early 18th century "Through gas, it we be possible to have light in all rooms, as is presently the case with water.“ When this book was translated into German in Berlin in 1815, an explanatory note had to be added, as no such water utilities existed there: "There are many private homes in England which are provided with pipes in the walls so that in almost all rooms, all one needs to do to get water is open a faucet.“ [18]

In London in 1814 there was a single gasometer of 14,000 ft3, but by 1822, there already four gas companies, whose gasometers had a total combined volume of almost a million ft3 [19] In order to keep the mains as short as possible the gas plants were set up in the city districts where the gas was consumed. The incursion of chemical plants of this sort into inhabited parts of the city provoke public criticism of the new technology. These were especially fierce once explosions occurred and towards poisonous effluent from plants. [20] Accum, who by this point was a leading proponent of gaslight in addition to his work as a chemist, strongly refuted these criticisms in his own writings. Through careful analysis he showed that on the whole, accidents were caused by carlessness rather than problems with the technology, and were avoidable.

Accum had from an early time been concerned with the byproducts of coal gas production, which included tar and sulphur compounds. These were typically buried or dumped into nearby watercourses. The ammonium and sulphur compounds were especially damaging towards to the environment. In 1820 Accum began demanding legislative intervention to prevent the unmitigated disposal of these byproducts.[21] There was, however, relatively little political movement in response as gas explosions of various sizes drew far more attention than long term environmental degradation from poisonous byproducts of gas production.

“There is death in the pot”

In 1820 Accum began the public struggle against poisoned and harmful foodstuffs with his book entitled A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons. Food additives derived from plants, putatively as preservatives or to alter tastes or appearance, had already been in use for a long time. With the advent of industrial means to prepare foods at the beginning of the 19th century, this practice spread to become a pressing problem. The production and distribution of foodstuff, which until then had been a predominantly personal affair between the producer and his customers, became increasingly a centralized process. Scientific research in chemistry and absence of laws protecting consumers made it possible for unscrupulous merchants to develop and introduce new and untested additives into foodstuffs. [22] Accum was the first to take up this subject and to reach a wide audience with his publicity.


A thousands copies of A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons were sold within a month of its publication.[23] A second run was printed in the same year, and a German translation was printed in Leipzig two years later. The book's spine shows that Accum was capable of using dramatic imagery to try to draw attention to his scientific knowledge. It featured a rectangular frame supporting a spider's web and surrounded by intertwined snakes. A spider lurks in the middle of the web over its prey, and a skull crowns the entire collection with a caption beneath it, taken from the Old Testament "There is death in the pot" [24].

The various chapters of the book alternate between harmless forgeries such as mixing dried pea grinds in coffee, with much dangerous contamination by truly poisonous substances. Accum explained to his readers that there was a high lead content in Spanish olive oil, caused by the lead containers used to clear the oil, and recommended using oil from other countries such as France and Italy, where this was not practiced.[25] He warned against bright green sweets sold by itinerant merchants in the streets of London as the colour was produced with "sapgreen", a colorant with high copper content. [26] Vinegar, he explained to his readers, was frequently mixed with sulphuric acid in order to increase its acidity.“[27]

He returned to Berlin in 1822 after facing charges of embezzlement related to his position as librarian, which however could not be proved. In Berlin, he accepted a position as lecturer at the Gewerbeinstitut and the Bauakademie.

Major works

The use of coal gas in lighting buildings was first invented by William Murdoch in 1792. The principle was later studied by Samuel Clegg. In 1803 Clegg and arts dealer Rudolph Ackermann united to install public gas lighting the city of London using coal gas. In 1810 the London & Westminster Gas Light & Coke company was founded, and Clegg and Accum became their head engineers. Accum has been credited with the realisation, in 1815, that coal tar could be distilled, or as he put it, 'evaporated to give it more consistence'. He suggested that the light distillate could be used as a cheap turpentine substitute. [28]

Adulterant usage was first investigated in 1820 by Frederick Accum, who identified many toxic metal colourings in food and drink. His work antagonised food suppliers and he was discredited by a scandal over his alleged mutilation of Royal Institution library books. The physician Arthur Hill Hassall later conducted extensive studies in the early 1850s, which were published in The Lancet and led to the 1860 Food Adulteration Act and subsequent further legislation.


Accum wrote a number of influential books including

  • A Practical Treatise on Gas Light, 1815, which was successful in promoting gas illumination of cities.
  • Culinary Chemistry, 1821
  • On the Adulteration of Food, 1822
  • Essay of Chemical Reactants, 1816
  • Chemische und physikalische Beobachtungen der Baumaterialien, 2 volumes, Berlin, 1826


  1. ^ Bürgerbuch der Stadt Bückeburg, Entry on 22. February 1764.
  2. ^ Cole, Friedrich Accum, p. 129, supposes that Judith Accum had good connections.
  3. ^ About the Brande family as apothecaries to the English court, see Leslie G. Matthews, London’s Immigrant Apothecaries, 1600–1800, in: Medical History 18, 3 (1974), available online as PDF, p. 262–274, here p. 269f.
  4. ^ Actual name is Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts.
  5. ^ Information given by Volker Bär, Berlin, a descendant of Accum's, to Frank Schulenburg, Göttingen, in September 2006.
  6. ^ Cole, Friedrich Accum, p. 129f. 1951. This cards was in the Banks Collection in the Department of Prints and Drawings in British Museum when Cole published his work.
  7. ^ Browne, The life and chemical services of Frederick Accum, p. 842.
  8. ^ About the early history of the Royal Institution, see Morris Berman, The Early Years of the Royal Institution 1799–1810: A Re-Evaluation, in: Science Studies 2, 3 (1972), S. 205–240.
  9. ^ Cole, Friedrich Accum, S. 130.
  10. ^ Cole, Friedrich Accum, p. 131 lists On the Separation of Argillaceous Earth from Magnesia, in: Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts 2 (1798), p. 2; An Attempt to Discover the Genuineness and Purity of Drugs and Medicinal Preparations, in: Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts 2 (1798), p. 118; A Historical Note on the Antiquity of the Art of Etching on Glass, in: Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts 4 (1800), p. 1–4; The Occurence of Benzoic Acid in Old Vanilla Pods, in: Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts 1 (1802), p. 295–302; Analysis of New Minerals such as the so called Salt of Bitumen, the Bit-Nobin of the Hindoos, in: Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts 5 (1803), p. 251–255; On Egyptian Heliotropium, in: Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts 6 (1803), p. 65–68; Experiments and Observations on the Compound of Sulphur and Phosphorus and the dangerous Explosions it makes when exposed to Heat, in: Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts 6 (1803), p. 1–7.
  11. ^ Cole, Friedrich Accum, p. 130.
  12. ^ It was M. D. George's opinion that Rowlandson charicatured Accum with the figure in the left corner. See Cole, Friedrich Accum, p. 131f. R. Burgess is of the contrary view: Humphry Davy or Friedrich Accum: a question of identification, in: Medical History 16,3 (1972), p. 290–293, available online PDF-Dokument from PubMed Central.
  13. ^ Cole, Friedrich Accum, p. 132 citing the notice. It appeared in The Times on 6. January 1809, Nr. 7562.
  14. ^ Schivelbusch, Lichtblicke, p. 16f.
  15. ^ Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night, p. 15.
  16. ^ . Cited in Schivelbusch, Lichtblicke, p. 22
  17. ^ Accum's testimony was on May 5 and 6 1809 before a committee of the House of Commons. His testimony is reprinted in Browne, The life and chemical services of Frederick Accum, p. 1009−1011.
  18. ^ For the German edition see: Praktische Abhandlung über die Gaserleuchtung, Ausgabe Berlin o. J. (1815), cited by Schivelbusch, Lichtblicke, p. 33.
  19. ^ Schivelbusch, Lichtblicke, p. 36.
  20. ^ See Schivelbusch, Lichtblicke, p. 38–44.
  21. ^ Akos Paulinyi, Gasanstalten – die Großchemie in Wohnvierteln, in: Akos Paulinyi / Ulrich Troitzsch, Mechanisierung und Maschinisierung 1600 bis 1840, Berlin 1991, p. 423–428, hier S. 427.
  22. ^ Owen R. Fennema: Food additives – an unending controversy, in: The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 46 (1987), p. 201–203, see p. 201, available online as a PDF.
  23. ^ Von der Verfälschung der Nahrungsmittel und von den Küchengiften, Leipzig 1822, Preface to the second edition, p. xxiii.
  24. ^ 2 Kings, 4:40;
  25. ^ Von der Verfälschung der Nahrungsmittel und von den Küchengiften, Leipzig 1822, p. 222f.
  26. ^ Von der Verfälschung der Nahrungsmittel und von den Küchengiften, Leipzig 1822, p. 214f.
  27. ^ Von der Verfälschung der Nahrungsmittel und von den Küchengiften, Leipzig 1822, p. 211.
  28. ^ Holland, R. A HISTORY OF TAR DISTILLATION AT CREW'S HOLE BRISTOL. SCI Lecture Papers Series. Retrieved on 2007-05-15.

Further reading

  • Thackray, Arnold (1970). "Accum, Friedrich Christian". Dictionary of Scientific Biography 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 43-44. ISBN 0684101149. 
  • R. J. Cole (1951). "Friedrich Accum (1769-1838). A biographical study". Annals of Science 7 (2): 128 - 143. doi:10.1080/00033795100202291.
  • "There is death in the pot" food safety work by Fredrick Accum 1820
  • The fight against food adulteration
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Friedrich_Accum". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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