Comptes Rendus

Charles Frédéric Kuhlmann: A key figure in the golden age period of chemical industry in northern France
Comptes Rendus. Chimie, Volume 19 (2016) no. 5, pp. 545-550.
Published online:
DOI: 10.1016/j.crci.2016.04.001

Ioana Fechete 1

1 Institut de chimie et procédés pour l'énergie, l'environnement et la santé (ICPEES), UMR 7515 CNRS, Université de Strasbourg, 25, rue Becquerel, 67087 Strasbourg cedex 2, France
     author = {Ioana Fechete},
     title = {Charles {Fr\'ed\'eric} {Kuhlmann:} {A} key figure in the golden age period of chemical industry in northern {France}},
     journal = {Comptes Rendus. Chimie},
     pages = {545--550},
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Ioana Fechete. Charles Frédéric Kuhlmann: A key figure in the golden age period of chemical industry in northern France. Comptes Rendus. Chimie, Volume 19 (2016) no. 5, pp. 545-550. doi : 10.1016/j.crci.2016.04.001. https://comptes-rendus.academie-sciences.fr/chimie/articles/10.1016/j.crci.2016.04.001/

Version originale du texte intégral

Charles Frédéric Kuhlmann was a distinguished professor, curious and energetic researcher scientist, and versatile industrialist, with a remarkable technical ingenuity and commercial ability. He was the creator of the chemical engineering educational program at Lille and supported the development of “École centrale de Lille”, in the “Nord” French Department. Kuhlmann traces a path of light for the development of chemical industry at Lille. Kuhlmann has earned his place in the history of science, particularly in the history of catalysis, as one of the earliest pioneers in the manufacturing of sulfuric and nitric acids. He was the first to use a platinum catalyst to oxidize ammonia to nitric acid. The studies surrounding the discovery for which he is best remembered today, which is the manufacture of nitric acid by catalytic oxidation of ammonia, reflect this diversity of interests. As a public figure, he played a prominent part in his region and was a valued administrator in the Chamber of Commerce and other bodies. He placed the rigor of business and work in the foreground. To work effectively, he found it necessary to lead a harmonious and balanced life. Kuhlmann was an important member of the French Academy of Sciences. The celebration of the 350th anniversary of the French Academy of Science in 2016 provides the opportunity to remember the central life and work of Kuhlmann, a universal scientist and ubiquitous chemist with an industrial heritage.

1 First steps in life, childhood overshadowed, early successes

He was born on 22 May 1803 into a large family at Colmar, Alsace. 1803 was also the birth year of the chemist Liebig, the founder of organic chemistry, of the physicist Doppler, who discovered the “Doppler” effect, and of the French composer Berlioz. Georges Christian Kuhlmann, Kuhlmann's father, a geometer-geographer, and his mother, Marie Salomé Hochstetter (Kuhlmann), had 10 children. Charles Frédéric was the sixth child in this wonderful family. In 1811, his father passed away when he was only 8 y old. His childhood was overshadowed by the death of his father, an event that marked his life and prepared him for life. His uncle took care of his education. Kuhlmann studied at the Royal College of Nancy and undertook scientific studies in chemistry at the University of Strasbourg. In the Alsace region, the dye industry was prosperous, and Kuhlmann was attracted to this area. At 17 years of age, he wished to deepen his knowledge on dyeing in Paris, at Vauquelin's Laboratory, where he worked for 3 years.

He was family oriented; he married Roman Woussen in 1831, who gave him six children, and remained close with his brothers and his children.

2 From the source to the river…

The beginning of higher education in chemistry in Lille was in 1823, well before the creation of the Faculty of Sciences in 1854. Indeed, the Lille municipality, which established in 1817, with its own resources, a professed physics course by Delezenne, decided to open a chemistry course. This course was supported by the Society of Science, Agriculture and Arts in Lille. To ensure a high-quality chemistry course, the municipality of Lille asked Vauquelin, who was a member of the Institute and chemistry professor at the Museum and the Faculty of Medicine of Paris, to propose a candidate for this program. This request was made through Delezenne, a friend of Vauquelin. The illustrious chemist Vauquelin selected Kuhlmann for this course, who was noted for his work in the dye industry, from 3 years in his laboratory. Kuhlmann decided to continue his intellectual life in chemistry pursuing a teaching career and held the proposed chair at Lille. In June 1824, as a professor of chemistry at Lille, he began to give lectures to an audience of many industrial and young scientists and students. He was 21 years old, and his course was a success with up to 300 listeners. Kuhlmann offered his students the research work that he applied to his own industry. Chemistry was a firmly anchored tradition since the beginning of Lille. Kuhlmann held the Chair of chemistry for 30 years until 1854, when the Faculty of Sciences (whose first dean was the famous chemist Louis Pasteur) was created by an imperial decree on 22 August. The creation of the Faculty of Sciences certainly strengthened already established Kuhlmann's orientation. It provided a broader institutional framework and more resources to the local scientific–industrial enterprise. In this context, Kuhlmann decided to devote himself entirely to the industry and changed his focus to industrial research and management. Therefore, it is not surprising that the developed branch was applied chemistry, particularly because this discipline remained notably close to industrial demands during the 19th century. Science education from a series of local initiatives was growing and significantly affected the local industry, which helped to guide research. Kuhlmann maintained relations with the new Faculty of Sciences through Lamy and Pasteur.

3 Dawn of an industrial age in the north region of France

As a prestigious professor of chemistry since 1824, he became a contact for the industrials of the “Nord” French Department. In 1825, he founded a company to manufacture sulfuric acid, which was used to bleach textile fibers and eventually replaced the Leblanc process, which produced soda ash to bleach textile fibers. The products were sold to textile manufacturers in the region. Without industrial apprenticeship and no other guide than his inventive and essentially practical mind, he resolutely set to work. However, in the final step, he was advised by the Saint-Gobain Company for the project's establishment and installed a plant in Loos-les-Lille (1825). The first factory was thus established in Loos (north of France), and the production of acid began in May 1826 (this year, 2016, is the 190th anniversary). He was one of the first to produce sulfuric acid using the contact process (1833) and used the catalysts in industrial chemistry, particularly in the manufacture of nitric acid from ammonia in the presence of platinum catalysts in 1838 (the reaction will later be used in the Ostwald process). Notably quickly, other products were manufactured in addition to sulfuric acid, including sodium sulfate, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, chlorine, and subsequently, fertilizers, and dyes. Kuhlmann pioneered the use of hydrochloric acid in his company to attack bones and develop superphosphate fertilizers, which were marketed to the regional beet producers. The Lille region produced sugar beets, and the outlet of these fertilizers was quickly found. Twenty years later, in addition to the plant in Loos, those of La Madeleine-les-Lille, Amiens, and Saint-André were created. Business experiments on the production of saltpeter led him to give a theory on nitrification. He showed that ammonia produced by the decomposition of organic bodies formed nitric acid; then, pushing his studies further in this direction, he examined the most favorable conditions for the absorption of nitrogen by plants and could illuminate one of the most important issues of agronomy. In another view, the nitrification of the walls led to mortar consolidation conditions and silicification of limestone for construction. The art of construction derived great benefit from his work. These studies also inspired notably ingenious insights into the formation of mineral and rock species, their disintegration, and crystal production. Geologists could draw from his many good ideas. Sixty notes and memoirs that he published quickly attracted the attention of the scientific world. Regarding the regional economic heritage and chemical industry, he played an important role in the development of activity domains such as canals and railway lines, canal improvement, realization of structures, among other domains. Kuhlmann and his son were among the founders of “Settlement Kuhlmann”, one of the major French industrial chemical groups in the 19th and 20th centuries, which later merged to form the industrial group “Pechiney–Ugine–Kuhlmann”. The mission of its enterprises was defined in its bylaws, “foster and advance the industry and the research for industry.” Kuhlmann was a great visionary who planned the creation of the rail tunnel that linked the southeastern United Kingdom and northern France, the Channel Tunnel, before President Francois Mitterrand (1916–1996), who designed the project, was born.

4 Beati possidentes

The scientific work of Kuhlmann included 50 patents and 70 papers and memoirs. These included 22 reports to the Academy of Sciences, 22 papers, and some public speeches at the Lille Science Society, and nine publications to Annales de chimie physique. These publications were spread out between 1823 and 1874, with an incredible diversity in subject matter, ranging from the simple method of laboratory analysis to the statement of a theory, complete fertilizer studies, studies on construction materials, inlays in boilers, industrial hygiene in factories, vacuum applications, chemical science, technology, and agriculture, to name a few. He received respect as a scientific researcher, teacher, and academic.

During his life, he held many honorary positions that enabled him to acquire scientific and industrial prominence. He was a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences in 1847 and the director of currency in Lille in 1853. He obtained the Legion of Honor at 36, and he was promoted to the rank of officer at 51 and of commander at 64. He was President of the Society of Science, Agriculture and Arts in Lille and a member of the Supervisory Board of the School of Industrial Arts and Mining. He contributed to the founding of the Industrial Society of northern France and supported the creation of the “Institut industriel du Nord”, now the “École centrale de Lille”. As the owner and founder of Kuhlmann institutions, he continued his industrial journey and became president of the Chamber of Commerce of Lille. Kuhlmann has been the president of the Lille Chamber of Commerce for 24 years and the general counselor of the Northern Department, representing the canton of Lille Northeast. He was the largest shareholder of the Lille discount counter in 1848 and of the “Crédit du Nord” bank in 1866. At the end of his life, he was appointed president of the French Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1883, on 27 January, he passed away in Lille. What city could feed the talent of Kuhlmann better than Lille, where his genius as an industrial entrepreneur, researcher, and professor was appreciated by a society that loved innovative work in industry and science? In Lille, he wrote one of the most beautiful and prosperous industrial, academic, and scientific works that France had ever experienced. To Kuhlmann, what dominates life in its work is the intimate alliance of science and industry to the benefit of one and the other.

FecheteIoanaifechete@unistra.fri_fechete@yahoo.com Institut de chimie et procédés pour l'énergie, l'environnement et la santé (ICPEES), UMR 7515 CNRS, Université de Strasbourg, 25, rue Becquerel, 67087 Strasbourg Cedex 2, FranceInstitut de chimie et procédés pour l'énergie, l'environnement et la santé (ICPEES)UMR 7515 CNRSUniversité de Strasbourg25, rue BecquerelStrasbourg Cedex 267087France


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Donders, Frans Cornelius (27 May 1818–24 March 1889), Dutch ophthalmologist.
Portmann, Adolf (27 May 1897–28 June 1982), Swiss zoologist.
28Bouchu, Étienne Jean (28 May 1714–16 September 1773), French steelmaker.
Gillet de Laumont, François Pierre Nicolas (28 May 1747–1 June 1834), French mineralogist.
Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolph (28 May 1807–14 December 1873), Swiss biologist.
Paulian, Renaud (28 May 1913–16 August 2003), French naturalist.
29Pitot, Henri (29 May 1695–27 December 1771), French engineer.
Daubenton, Louis Jean-Marie (29 May 1716–1 January 1800), French botanist.
Braconnot, Henry (29 May 1780–13 January 1855), French chemist.
Bussy, Antoine Alexandre Brutus (29 May 1794–1 February 1882), French chemist.
Anatole Bouquet de La Grye, Jean Jacques (29 May 1827–22 December 1909), French engineer.
Gyldén, Johan August Hugo (29 May 1841–9 November 1896), Finland-Swedish astronomer.
Bruce, David (29 May 1855–27 November 1931), British biologist.
Maire, René Charles Joseph Ernest (29 May 1878–24 November 1949), French botanist.
Yoccoz, Jean-Christophe (29 May 1957), French mathematician and Fields medal winner (1994).
30Bonfa, Jean (30 May 1638–5 December 1724), French scientist.
Pierre I, Le Grand (30 May 1672–28 January 1725), Tsardom of Russia.
Schaeffer, Jacob Christian (30 May 1718–5 January 1790), German botanist.
Naumann, Karl Friedrich (30 May 1797–26 November 1873), German mineralogist.
Jamin, Jules Célestin (30 May 1818–12 February 1886), French physicist.
Watts, Philip (30 May 1846–15 March 1926), British architect.
Mousseron, Max Jean (30 May 1902–1 March 1988), French chemist.
31Caligny, Anatole François Huë de (31 May 1811–24 March 1892), French scientist.
Durocher, Joseph Marie Élisabeth (31 May 1817–3 December 1860), French geologist.
Jamin, Jules Célestin (31 May 1818–12 February 1886), French physicist.
Mosso, Angelo (31 May 1846–24 November 1910), Italian medical doctor.
Contensou, Pierre Louis (31 May 1914–15 September 1987), French engineer.


[1] J.G. Smith Platin. Met. Rev., 32 (1988), p. 84

[2] A. Thépot Revue du Nord., 67 (1985), p. 527

[3] J.-E. Léger Une grande entreprise dans la chimie française : Kuhlmann, Éditions Debresse, Paris, 1988

[4] Contributions à l’histoire de la faculté des sciences de Lille de 1854 à 1970, Histoire de la faculté des sciences de Lille et de l’université Lille-1, Tome 1, Sciences et Technologies, Association de solidarité des Anciens, université Lille-1, 1997.

[5] M. Lenglen Frédéric Kuhlmann, agronome, L'Industrie chimique, Paris, 1942

[6] F.W.J. McCosh, Reidel (1984), p. 133

[7] D. McDonald; L.B. Hunt, Johnson Matthey, London (1982), p. 394

[8] J.G. Smith, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK (1979), p. 63

[9] J.B.A. Dumas C. r. hebd. séances Acad. Sci. Paris, 92 (1881), p. 347

[10] A.L. Lavoisier, Œuvres, vol. 5, Imprimerie nationale, Paris (1892), p. 468

[11] A.C. Longchamp Ann. Chim. Phys., 33 (1826), p. 5

[12] Y. Lamy, Frédéric Kuhlmann 1803–1881, Alpha Copy, Lyon.

[13] A house history, in: Cent ans d’industrie chimique : les Établissements Kuhlmann, 1825–1925, Établissements Kuhlmann, Paris, 1926. In 1966 the firm has merged with Ugine to become Ugine-Kuhlmann S.A.

[14] M. Béaud et al. Une multinationale française, Le Seuil, 1975

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