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William Hyde Wollaston


William Hyde Wollaston FRS (August 6, 1766 – December 22, 1828) was an English chemist and physicist who is famous for discovering two chemical elements and for developing a way to process platinum ore.


Wollaston was born in East Dereham, Norfolk, the son of the priest-astronomer Francis Wollaston (1737-1815) and his wife Mary Farquier. In 1793 William obtained a doctorate in medicine from Cambridge University. During his studies there he became interested in chemistry, crystallography, metallurgy and physics. The mineral wollastonite is named after him. In 1800 he left medicine and concentrated on pursuing these interests instead of his trained vocation.


Wollaston is perhaps best known as a chemist. He became wealthy by developing the first physico-chemical method for processing platinum ore in practical quantities, and in the process of testing the device he discovered the elements palladium (symbol Pd) in 1803 and rhodium (symbol Rh) in 1804.

Anders Gustav Ekeberg (1776-1813) discovered tantalum in 1802, however, William Hyde Wollaston declared it was identical with niobium. Latern Heinrich Rose (1795-1864) proved in 1846 that niobium and tantulum were indeed different elements.

Wollaston also performed important work in electricity. In 1801, he performed an experiment showing that the electricity from friction was identical to that produced by voltaic piles. During the last years of his life he performed electrical experiments that would pave the way to the eventual design of the electric motor. However, controversy erupted when Michael Faraday, who was undoubtedly the first to construct a working electrical motor, refused to grant Wollaston credit for his earlier work.

His optical work was important as well, where he is remembered for his observations of dark Fraunhofer lines in the solar spectrum (1802) which eventually led to the discovery of the elements in the Sun. He invented the camera lucida (1807), the reflecting goniometer (1809), and the Wollaston prism. He also developed the first lens specifically for camera lens called Wollaston's meniscus lens, or just meniscus lens, in 1812. The lens was designed to improve the image projected by the camera obscura. By changing the shape of the lens, Wollaston was able to project a flatter image, eliminating much of the distortion that was a problem with many of that day's biconvex lens.

Wollaston used his Bakerian lecture in 1805, On the Force of Percussion, to defend Gottfried Leibniz's principle of vis viva, an early formulation of the conservation of energy. Wollaston was too ill to deliver his final Bakerian in 1828 and dictated it to Henry Warburton who read it on November 20.

Wollaston also served on a royal commission that opposed adoption of the metric system (1819), and one that created the imperial gallon.


  • Fellow of the Royal Society, 1793.
    • Secretary, 1804-1816.
    • President, briefly in 1820.
    • Royal Medal, 1828.
  • The Wollaston Medal is named for him.
  • The chain silicate mineral Wollastonite is named after him.
  • Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan, Canada is named after him.
  • A lunar crater is named after Wollaston.

Preceded by
Astley Cooper
Copley Medal
Succeeded by
Richard Chenevix
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "William_Hyde_Wollaston". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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