The Young J.H. van 't Hoff: the Background to the Publication of his 1874 Pamphlet on the Tetrahedral Carbon Atom, Together with a New English Translation

G.J. Somsen, Peter J. Ramberg*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


J. H. van't Hoffs 1874 Dutch pamphlet, in which he proposed the spatial arrangement of atoms in a molecule, is one of the most significant documents in the history of chemistry. This essay presents a new narrative of Van 't Hoffs early life and places the appearance of the pamphlet within the context of the 'second golden age' of Dutch science. We argue that the combination of the reformed educational system in The Netherlands, the emergence of graphical molecular modelling within the theoretical and practical culture of chemistry during the 1860s and 1870s, as well as Van 't Hoffs own personal research trajectory, formed the background to his unprecedented attribution of spatial meaning to the traditional concept of atomic 'arrangement'. We also present a new English translation of the pamphlet, for we have found that the existing translation, published by G. M. Richardson in 1901, contains many errors, changes and omissions. The new Version offers a more accurate rendition in English of Van 't Hoffs style and argument.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-74
Number of pages24
JournalAnnals of Science
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2001

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