Karl Wilhelm Scheele The Founder of Bleach

Discovering Chlorine

Karl Wilhelm Scheele, the seventh of eleven children, born December 9, 1742, to a Swedish couple in Stralsund, was an apprentice to an apothecary in Gothenburg by the age of 14. A dozen years later he was working in a Stockholm pharmacy, studying and experimenting in his spare time with the pharmacy’s salts, acids, ores, crystals, and other chemical wonders of the Eighteenth Century.

Although Scheele isolated oxygen, discovered glycerine, prepared the first hydrogen sulfide, noted the action of light on silver compounds, and wrote papers on a host of chemical analyses, the single work that was the foundation for more discoveries than any of his others was a paper he authored on manganese in which he announced the existence of chlorine. It also led to the subsequent isolation of manganese and barium.

Scheele died May 21, 1786, but the research into the production of and use for chlorine has continued to this day. During the year prior to his death, Count Claude-Louis Berthollet, a French textile producer, prepared a bleaching agent by dissolving gaseous (non-electrolytic) chlorine in water. In 1789, he improved this bleaching agent by adding the chlorine to a caustic potash solution. This bleaching agent became known as ‘eau de Javelle’, taking its name from Berthollet’s chemical plant in Paris. In parts of Europe and Canada, this nomenclature still is used to denote hypochlorite.

As the popularity of the bleach solution spread throughout the Western world in the Nineteenth century, many names became attached to production technology. In the U.S., the first electrolytically produced chlorine for bleach was at a plant in Rumford Falls, Maine in 1892. This plant used a cell equipped with an asbestos diaphragm developed by Ernest A. LeSueur from Canada.

In the U.S., the first commercial delivery of liquefied chlorine in cylinders was made in 1909, and in the same year, a Michigan company was the first in America to ship liquid chlorine in a 15-ton single tank carload.

By 1924, the estimated yearly capacity of all commercial plants in the U.S. and Canada was approximately 180,000 tons of chlorine gas, of which about 46,000 tons were liquefied. These figures do not include the U.S. Army’s Edgewood, Maryland Arsenal plant’s annual chlorine gas production capacity of 36,500 tons.


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