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A Brief History of Hydrogen
(Far too many crucial contributions are lacking here to be called comprehensive, with our apologies.)

1766 – Renowned English chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish is the first to recognize hydrogen gas as a distinct substance. He also described the composition of water as a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. 

Early 1800’s to mid 1900’s – Town gas, a gaseous product manufactured from coal, supplies lighting and heating for America and Europe. Town gas is 50% hydrogen, with the rest comprised of mostly methane and carbon dioxide, with 3% to 6% carbon monoxide. Town gas is celebrated as a wonder, bringing light and heat to the civilized world. Then, large natural gas fields are discovered, and networks of natural gas pipelines displace town gas. (Town gas is still found in limited use today in Europe and Asia.) 

1911 – Chemist Carl Bosch directs the development for ammonia and fertilizer to be manufactured from hydrogen and nitrogen gases. This innovation leads eventually to synthetic fertilizers, making it possible for agriculture to feed a rapidly increasing world population.

1937 – After several years of safe and elegant passenger travel by many airships, the zeppelin Hindenburg, landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, is ignited by electrical discharge after its flight across the Atlantic from Germany. Within seconds, the airship burns and crashes to the ground, with a death toll of 35 of the 97 people on board and one on the ground. (It turns out that although the Hindenburg was filled with seven million cubic feet of hydrogen for buoyancy, the fire spread because of the coating, which contained rocket propellant components. Thirty-four of the deaths were attributed to people jumping or falling from the airship, and two from burns from the flammable skin and on-board diesel. Even though the hydrogen burned safely above the passengers and didn’t cause a single death, hydrogen was stigmatized by association with the Hindenburg disaster for decades afterward.) 

1959 – Francis Bacon, engineer and descendent of the famous scientist, produce a 5-kW fuel cell system. Later that year, Harry Karl Ihrig demonstrates the first fuel cell-powered vehicle, a 20-horsepower tractor.
20th Century – Hydrogen is used extensively as a key component in the manufacture of ammonia, methanol, gasoline, and heating oil. It is also used to make fertilizers, glass, refined metals, vitamins, cosmetics, semiconductor circuits, soaps, lubricants, cleaners, margarine, peanut butter and rocket fuel.

1958 to Present – The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is formed, continuing work by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and several universities and businesses on using hydrogen as a rocket fuel and electricity source via fuel cells. NASA becomes the worldwide largest user of liquid hydrogen and is renowned for its safe handling of hydrogen.
Late 20th Century/Dawn of 21st Century – Many industries worldwide begin producing hydrogen, hydrogen-powered vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, and other hydrogen products. From Japan’s hydrogen delivery trucks to BMW’s liquid hydrogen passenger cars, to Ballard’s fuel cell transit buses in Chicago and Vancouver, BC, to Palm Desert’s Renewable Transportation Project, to Iceland’s commitment to be the first hydrogen economy by 2030, to the forward-thinking work of many hydrogen organizations worldwide, to Hydrogen Now!’s public education work, the dynamic progress in Germany, Europe, Japan, Canada, the US, Australia, Iceland, and several other countries launch hydrogen onto the main stage of the world’s energy scene.


--Dr. Werner Zittel, Reinhold Wurster, Ludwig-Bölkow-Systemtechnik GmbH, Hydrogen in the Energy Sector, 8/7/96.

--BASF website: http://www.basf.com/businesses/consumer/agproducts/our_group/history.html

--John L. Sloop, Liquid Hydrogren As A Propulsion Fuel, 1945-1959, The NASA History Series, Scientific and Technical Information Office 1978, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C.

--Assorted other sources.

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Last modified: January 2001