Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft  

Historical Review of the Fritz-Haber-Institut
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Content   1. Foundation of the Institute   2. The First World War   3. The years 1919-1933   4. National Socialism and the Second World War  
5. The early years after the Second World War   6. Incorporation into the Max-Planck Society   7. Development into a surface and interface science research center     

3. The years 1919-1933

After the end of the war Haber started to devote himself again to basic research. Due to the lack of finances and because of the rise of inflation the institute had to stop attempts to apply its expertise in chemical weapon development in peaceful projects dealing with pharmacology and pest control. Economic troubles shook the newly founded republic as a result of large reparation payments. Thus, in 1920 Haber had the idea of paying off the debts by gold resources obtained from electrochemically extracted gold which was assumed to be dissolved in sea water in relatively high concentration. Together with a secret task force team he developed methods to extract gold from sea water as well as new techniques for its analysis. This included detailed studies of sea water samples from various parts of the world, some of them obtained by marine expeditions undertaken only for this purpose. After several years of research it was found that the initial, very promising analysis (it was estimated that 8 billion tons of gold were dissolved in the sea) had yielded gold concentrations which were too high by a factor of 1,000 rendering the extraction economically impracticable.

Just after the war Haber set up two other departments besides his own. First, Herbert Freundlich, who had been working in the institute since 1916 and had become Deputy Director, was assigned to head the Department of Colloidal Chemistry covering a field which he himself had founded. This department was concerned with the behavior of colloids in electrolytes and with the adsorption of species from solutions. Second, James Franck was appointed director of a Department of Atomic Physics where he continued his experiments on collisions between atoms and electrons. For this work he was awarded, together with Gustav Ludwig Hertz, the Nobel Prize in 1925. After James Franck had left the institute in 1920 to assume a chair at the University of Göttingen the Department of Atomic Physics was headed by Rudolf Ladenburg starting in 1924 until 1932 when Ladenburg took up an appointment at Princeton University and the department was closed. In 1923, a second Department of Physical Chemistry was opened and headed by MichaelPolanyi producing pioneering work in various fields. As an example, Polanyi proposed, in collaboration with Eugen Wigner and Henry Eyring, a first atomic model of reactions in the gaseous state characterized by collision processes between molecules and he developed the theory of the transition state for describing the kinetics of chemical reactions. Polanyi also developed fundamental concepts dealing with the plasticity of solids and with the mechanism of polymerization.

Haber himself was at this time engaged in science politics where he played a major role in the foundation of an "Emergency Fund for German Science" (Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft) from which the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) developed later on. His main scientific activities were, apart from the gold project, devoted to studies of light emission in chemical reactions (chemoluminescence), kinetics of gas reactions, spectroscopy of intermediate products in chemical reactions, and to photochemistry.

First and foremost, however, Haber attracted with his unique personality and scientific versatility young talented scientists in large numbers and encouraged them by discussion and critical stimulation. The bi-weekly colloquium under his guidance became a forum for discussion of the latest developments in physics and chemistry.

The institute became a Mekka for physical chemists where many prominent scientists began their careers or spent extended time as visiting scientists. Amongst others we mention Hans Beutler, Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer, Ludwig Ebert, Henry Eyring, Ladislaus Farkas, Karl-Hermann Geib, Paul Goldfinger, Walter Grotrian, Paul Harteck, Hartmut Kallmann, Hans Kautsky, Paul Knipping, Hans Kopfermann, Fritz London, Eugen Rabinowitch, Karl Söllner, Hertha Sponer, Eugen Wigner, Joseph Weiss, Karl Weissenberg, Setsuru Tamaru, and Hans Zocher.

Work performed at the institute represented milestones in science of the time. Here we mention only a few examples:

  • the interpretation of predissociation spectra by Bonhoeffer and Farkas (1928),
  • the demonstration of negative dispersion in a neon gas discharge tube as evidence of stimulated light emission Kopfermann and Ladenburg (1928), which forms a prerequisite for the development of laser emission detected much later,
  • the purification of parahydrogen at low temperatures by Bonhoeffer and Harteck (1929),
  • the quantum-mechanical description of energy transfer between atomic systems by Kallmann and London (1929),
  • the explanation of the hyperfine structure of atomic spectra by Kopfermann (1931),
  • the sketch of the basic principles of a heavy ion linear accelerator by Kallmann (1933).
The outstanding achievements of Polanyi and his team in physical chemistry and also of Freundlich and his colleagues in colloid and surface chemistry have already been mentioned. These were the "Golden Years", of the institute and of scientific research in Berlin, which came to an abrupt end in 1933.

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Sat, 6. Aug 2005
Address: Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Faradayweg 4-6, 14195 Berlin, Germany
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