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Travers, Morris William


(b. Kensington, London, England, 24 January 1872; d. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England, 25 August 1961)

physical chemistry, cryogenics, industrial chemistry.

Travers actively collaborated with William Ramsay in the discovery and specification of the inert gases. The second of the four sons of a London physician, Travers was schooled from 1879 to 1882 at Ramsgate and from 1882 to 1885 at Woking. In the spring of 1885 he transferred to Blundell’s School (Tiverton), which was equipped with a good chemistry laboratory. From 1889 to 1893 he studied at University College London taking his B.Sc. in 1893. Intending to specialize in organic chemistry, he worked with Alban Haller at the University of Nancy during early 1894, Returning to work with Ramsay in late 1894, just at the time of the discovery of argon. Travers took a position as demonstrator at University College London and continued research in organic chemistry under Collie. In 1898 he took his D.Sc. and became assistant professor.

After the discovery of helium in 1895, Travers assisted Ramsay in the determination of the properties of argon and helium. They also heated minerals and meteorites for new gases, but inevitably only helium was evolved. For some time it had been suspected that yet another gas might accompany argon, and accordingly they prepared a large quantity of this gas by removing oxygen and nitrogen from air and by forcing the residue into a bulb. In order to apply the technique of fractional distillation, it was first essential to liquefy this argon residue. With the assistance of Hampson. Travers and Ramsay obtained in May 1898 a large quantity of liquid air for this purpose. Practicing with air to prepare themselves for an investigation of the argon. Travers evaporated a small quantity of the liquid air and collected the least volatile fraction. A spectrum analysis of the residue yielded the new lines of krypton. (Travers collected the gas from the last ten cubic centimeters of 750 cc of evaporating liquid air. After removing the oxygen and nitrogen, leaving a gaseous residue of about 26 cc, he observed on 31 May 1898 with Ramsay the new spectral lines. They telegraphed the news to Berthelot in Paris and sent their communication to the Royal Society on 3 June. It was announced on 6 June in the Paris Academy and on 9 June in London.) If the argon residue contained a constituent of lower boiling point (namely, greater volatility), it would distill over first. Accordingly they liquefied the argon and upon evaporation collected the most volatile fraction. A spectrum analysis showed the new lines of neon, the suspected companion of argon. (Travers prepared the most volatile fraction on 11 June. With Ramsay he observed the new spectral lines on 12 June. The paper was read on 16 June to the Royal Society, London, and announced in Paris on 20 June 1898.) A further unexpected companion. “metargon,” proved to be a mistake, like the sensational “etherion” of Brush. Metargon was merely argon contaminated by carbon monoxide. C. F. Brush on 23 August announced the existence of an alleged gaseous constituent having a density 10-4 that of hydrogen (Science, 8 [1898], 485-494).

Travers and Ramsay next turned their attention toward the task of obtaining quantities of each inert gas sufficient to determine the properties. Inspite of its low volatility, krypton proved difficult to obtain in isolated quantities. It was found to have an even less volatile companion, xenon, identified spectroscopically about 12 July 1898 and announced to the British Association on 8 September 1898. Since the neon fraction from the argon residue also contained helium, liquid air proved insufficient; it was necessary to employ liquid hydrogen for the condensation.

Although Dewar had successfully liquefied hydrogen by May 1898, Travers independently constructed the required apparatus. With liquid hydrogen they were able to condense the neon portion, while the helium remained gaseous. Evaporating this liquid, they obtained sufficient neon by July 1900 to complete their study of the inert gases. Continuing his cryogenic research. Travers made probably the first accurate temperature measurements of liquefied gases, and set up several experimental liquid air plants in Europe. In November 1903 Travers replaced S. Young as professor of chemistry at University College, Bristol, and contributed to that institution receiving a university charter. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1904, and two years later went to Bangalore as director of the Indian Institute of Science, which opened to students in 1911. In 1909 Travers married the sister of R. Whytlaw-Gray. During this period Travers conducted an interesting but controversial study on boron.

Returning to England in July 1914. Travers directed glass manufacture at Walthamstow (Duroglass, Ltd.) throughout World War I, and later became president of the Society of Glass Technology. From 1920 he was concerned with high-temperature furnaces and fuel technology. including the gasification of coal. and in 1925 took part in founding the Institute of Fuel. Travers was made honorary professor of chemistry at Bristol in 1927 and established a research group that worked on thermal decomposition of organic vapors and also gaseous and heterogeneous reactions. He also awakened the youthful scientific interest of A. B. Pippard during this period. He was president of the Faraday Society from 1936 to 1938 and retired in 1937. Then Travers began his historical research on Ramsay, organizing the Ramsay papers and compiling and working on twenty-four volumes of documentation. During World War II, Travers served in an advisory capacity and was a consultant to the explosives section of the Ministry of Supply from 1940 to 1945. Travelling extensively, he was a general trouble-shooter concerned with a variety of technical problems. From 1953 Travers resumed his biography of Ramsay and completed it in 1955.


1. Original Works. A nearly complete list of Travers’ publications is in C. E. H. Bawn, “Morris William Travers 1872–1961,”in Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society, 9 (1963), 301–313. Travers also wrote William Ramsay and University College London, a small booklet privately issued by University College London for the Ramsay Centenary, and “Sir William Ramsay,” in Endeavour, 11 (1952), 126–131. The best source on the discovery of the inert gases is The Discovery of the Rare Gases (London, 1928). For a brief account see Travers’ “The Rare Gases of the Atmosphere,” in E. F. Armstrong, ed., Chemistry in the Twentieth Century (London, 1924), 82–87. An extensive MS collection of Travers is incorporated with the Ramsay Papers (esp. items 82–105) in the library at University College London. R. M. MacLeod and J. R. Friday, Archives of British Men of Science (London, 1972), notes items in the Royal Society.

II. Secondary Literature. On Travers and his work, see D. H. Everett, in Nature, 192 (1961), 1127–1128; W. L. Hardin, The Rise and Development of the Liquefaction of Gases (New York, 1899), which contains a relevant discussion of the then current state of cyrogenics and also of the discovery of krypton, neon, metargon, and etherion: D. McKie, “Morris William Travers 1872–1961,” Proceedings of the Chemical Society (1964), 377–378, which mentions an autobiography, the draft of which is in the library of University College London: P. Walden, “Lothar Meyer, Mendelejeff. Ramsay und das periodische System der Elemente,” in Günther Bugge. ed., Das Buch der Grossen Chemiker, 2nd ed., II (Weinheim, 1955), 229–287; Weeks, Discovery of the Elements, 7th ed. (Easton, 1968), 750–773, 868–896; and T.I. Williams in his A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists (London, 1969), 518–519.

Thaddeus J. Trenn

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