Celebrating Robert Angus Smith, ‘Father of Acid Rain’, born 200 years ago today

Robert Angus Smith (1817-84). Copyright The Royal Society of Chemistry.

15 February 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Angus Smith, chemist and environmental scientist, popularly known as the ‘Father of Acid Rain’.

Smith was born in Pollokshaws near Glasgow, on 15 February 1817, and attended Glasgow University, though he left without a degree after only one year. He later obtained a PhD in Germany under Justus von Liebig.

In 1843 Smith was appointed as assistant to Lyon Playfair, professor of chemistry at the Manchester Royal Institution. Although Playfair moved to London in 1845, Smith remained in Manchester for the next twenty years, working as an analytical chemist. He investigated and campaigned against the appalling sanitary conditions in Manchester and the surrounding towns, where industrial pollution was a major health hazard. He was appointed the first chief inspector under the Alkali Act of 1863.

Smith graphically described the effects of Manchester’s polluted atmosphere, in a letter to the Manchester Guardian published on 2 November 1844:

Coming in from the country last week on a beautiful morning, when the air was unusually clear and fresh, I was surprised to find Manchester was enjoying the atmosphere of a dark December day… Those who would defend such evils, who would remain careless as long as any probable cause is unremoved, must surely be devoid not only of mercy, but of clear perception and of good taste. The gloominess of uncleanness is everywhere around us.

Smith studied the effects of pollution on the atmosphere, which resulted in the formation of carbonic acid, or ‘acid rain’ – a term he coined. In 1872 he published his seminal analysis of the acidity of rainwater in Britain, Air and Rain: The Beginning of a Chemical Climatology. In many ways he was a forerunner of today’s environmentalists, although it would take another hundred years before governments heeded his warnings about acid rain.

Rainwater crystals, from Robert Angus Smith, Air and Rain: The Beginnings of a Chemical Climatology (London: Longmans, Green, 1872). This copy was presented by Smith to the physicist James Prescott Joule. Pressmark: J200011.

The Library holds the Smith Memorial Collection of books on chemistry and physics, which was formed by Smith and donated after his death to Owens College (forerunner of The University of Manchester) in 1885.

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