Hatchett, Charles

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Hatchett, Charles

(b. London, England, 2 January 1765; d. London, 10 March 1847)


A skilled analyst, Hatchett was the effective discoverer of the element niobium (columbium). The son of a wealthy coach builder, he enjoyed luxury throughout his life. of his education, and of the origin of his chemical knowledge, little is known. His father, although disappointed at his son’s disinclination to follow his own profession, made him a generous allowance; Hatchett seems to have carried on the business after his father’s death. In 1786 he married Elizabeth Collick. In about 1800 he started a small chemical manufacturing business near Chiswick and shortly afterwards took into his laboratory the young William Thomas Brande, whose family had recently moved into the neighborhood. He taught him chemistry and mineralogy and Brande eventually succeeded Davy as professor at the Royal Institution; in 1818 he married Hatchett’s second daughter, Anna Frederica.

All of Hatchett’s important scientific work was done in the decade 1796–1806. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1797. His analysis of the mineral now known as columbite or niobite was described in 1801. He showed that it contained a hitherto unknown metal which he called “columbium,” believing that the specimen came from America; its origin is, however, doubtful. Columbium almost invariably occurs in association with tantalum, columbite and tantalite differing essentially only in the relative proportions of these metals. Both minerals were analyzed by William Wollaston (1809), who thought he had shown that the two metals were identical. Their difference was established in 1846 by Heinrich Rose, when he “rediscovered” columbium, which he called “niobium” (both names are still current, although the latter has been adopted officially). Niobium was isolated in 1864 by C. W. Blomstrand.

Hatchett acquired a reputation in Great Britain and on the Continent as a mineral analyst, but he also carried out important work on organic materials. His analysis of shell, bone, and dental enamel advanced the knowledge of the composition of these substances, and three papers describing the preparation of an artificial tanning agent contain important observations on resins. Thomas Thomson, who remarked on Hatchett’s advance of vegetable chemistry, later lamented his loss to science as a result of the “baneful effects of wealth” and business cares.


I. Original Works. Most of Hatchett’s papers are listed in Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers, III (London, 1869), 213–214. The papers mentioned in the text are “Experiments and Observations on Shell and Bone,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 89 (1799), 572–581; “An Analysis of a Mineral Substance From North America Containing a Metal Hitherto Unknown,” ibid., 92 (1802), 49–66; and “On an Artificial Substance, Which Possesses the Principal Characteristic Properties of Tannin,” ibid., 95 (1805), 211–224, 285–315; 96 (1806), 109–146.

The Hatchets Diary, A. Raistrick, ed. (Truro, 1967), is an edited version of a diary in the possession of Hatchett’s descendants describing a journey made in 1796 during which he visited a large number of mines, factories, and geological sites in many parts of England and Scotland; there is a short biography by the ed.

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest biographical sketch is E. M. Weeks, “The Chemical Contributions of Charles Hatchett,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 15 (1938), 153–158, repr. in E. M. Weeks, Discovery of the Elements, 7th ed., rev. (Easton, Pa., 1968), pp. 323–343, with additional material on the origin of the mineral analyzed by Hatchett. See also Thomas Thomson, A System of Chemistry, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh, 1807), V, 146, 237; and History of Chemistry, II (London, 1831), 231. “Charles Hatchett,” in Sir J. Barrow, Sketches of the Royal Society and Royal Society Club (London, 1849), quotes letters from Hatchett’s daughter, Mrs. Brande, and is mainly anecdotal; it includes a list of Hatchett’s papers in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

E. L. Scott