Daniel Rutherford is the person credited with discovering nitrogen in 1722


Rutherford was educated at the University of Edinburgh (in his home town) and discovered nitrogen as a student.

The Discovery of Nitrogen
The Experiment

When the scientist and teacher Joseph Black was studying the properties of carbon dioxide, he observed that a candle would not light within it. If a candle was burned in a closed container and was allowed to burn out, the remaining air would not support any flame. This was a perfectly normal reaction, but when the air (along with the carbon dioxide) was absorbed by chemicals, some air was not. This air also did not support a flame.

The Discovery

Black turned this problem over to Daniel Rutherford, who was his student at the time. Rutherford kept a mouse in a confined space (with a small quality of air) until it died. Then he burned a candle in the same place until it burned out. Afterwards, he burned phosphorous in it, until it would no longer burn. The air was then filtered through a carbon dioxide absorbing solution. The remaining air still did not support combustion, and a mouse would not be able to live in it.

The Conclusion

Rutherford and Black, who were both convinced of the validity of the phlogiston theory, reported this experiment in 1772. The two men explained their conclusion on the basis of the theory. They said that when mice breathed and combustion was started, phlogiston was given off and entered the air with the carbon dioxide. When the carbon dioxide was absorbed, the phlogiston remained. The air was in fact saturated with phlogiston, which was why candles and other objects could not be lighted within it.

Rutherford described that, in the same manner, a living creature gives away phlogiston when it breathes, and if it is placed in air that is already saturated in it, it cannot breathe and will die.

Rutherford called this gas noxious air, or phlogisticated air. Today, we call it nitrogen.

Extra Life Accomplishments

In 1786, Rutherford was also appointed to the Regius Chair of Botany in Edinburgh and as Keeper of the Botanic Gardens, after the death of Professor John Hope.

  • Text taken (and paraphrased) from http://www.wikipedia.org/ (under the GNU Free Documentation License).
  • also "Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819)." 02 Feb 2004. http://www.acd.ucar.edu/education/textbook/ch1/box3/Rutherford.html.