UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences


Chemistry in colour

11 November 2013

Norman Collie, circa 1911-1913

The turn of the 20th century was a hugely successful time for UCL's chemistry department, bringing with it the college's first Nobel Prize. William Ramsay was the 1904 laureate in chemistry for the discovery of the noble gases. One of the key participants in this research was J Norman Collie, pictured above next to a glowing neon gas discharge tube. Collie served as Professor of Chemistry and head of the laboratories at UCL until 1928.

Probably taken between 1911 and 1913, this photo is a rare, and extremely well-preserved example of the Autochrome process, which was the first practical method for producing colour photos with a single photographic plate. Other early colour photos, such as the famous photos of Tsarist Russia made by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, required multiple monochrome exposures through coloured filters, which were then combined back into colour photos later. This was a cumbersome method, particularly when photographing people or moving objects, although the colour reproduction was better.

One of the Slade windows today. The soot and grime is gone, replaced by splashes of paint left by Fine Art students.

Although the location is hardly recognisable under the thick coating of soot that covered most London buildings at the time, it is a spot which will be familiar to many who know UCL: the basement level frontage of the Slade School of Fine Art, on the north side of the main quadrangle. Before the opening in 1913 of what is now known as the Kathleen Lonsdale Building, this building housed the college's chemistry labs.

Aside from his academic career, Collie was a renowned mountaineer, a pioneer of medical X-rays (he performed the UK's first), and there is even some evidence that he was Arthur Conan Doyle's inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes - something which seems quite plausible given his appearance in this photo.

He was the first to climb 71 peaks around the world, and has two mountains named after him, Sgurr Thormaid (Norman's Peak) in Scotland, and Mount Collie in Canada.

Photo credit: UCL Chemistry Collections, acknowledgement: Prof Alwyn Davies


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