The History of Hydrogen

A Short history of Hydrogen

In approximately 1670, the Irish alchemist Robert Boyle made a significant discovery. He observed that iron produced flammable gases when it reacted with diluted acids. Almost a hundred years later, in 1766, the English physicist and chemist Henry Cavendish recognized this substance as a distinct chemical element.

Cavendish conducted extensive studies on the element's chemical properties and proposed that the "combustible air" did not originate from the acids but rather from the metals themselves. He referred to this element as "metal phlogiston," using the term "phlogiston" to describe a fire-like element believed to exist at that time.

Upon combining with oxygen, this flammable gas generated a dew-like substance that the British chemist Joseph Priestley had previously demonstrated to be water. Subsequently, the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier bestowed the element with its present name. Lavoisier coined the term "hydrogen" (H on the periodic table) by combining the ancient Greek words húdōr ("water") and gennáō ("I bring forth"), denoting its role as a "water maker."

Henry Cavendish experiments
Apparatus used by Henry Cavendish for experiments on factitious air, 1766.

In the year 1800, British scientists William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle made a groundbreaking discovery known today as electrolysis. They found that pure hydrogen and oxygen could be produced by combining electricity and water.

Around 1839, the German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein uncovered the fuel cell effect during experiments involving platinum, hydrogen, and oxygen. In this process, hydrogen and oxygen combined to create water and electricity, effectively reversing the principle of electrolysis.

A few years later, the British scientist Sir William Robert Grove put Schönbein's findings into practical use and developed the "gas voltaic battery." This device featured two platinum sulfate electrodes, with one end filled with hydrogen gas and the other sealed within a container of hydrogen placed in an oxygen container. Grove's demonstration earned him the distinction of being hailed as the "Father of the Fuel Cell."

Hydrogen in Western Australia

In Western Australia, Hydrogen was used widely in homes right up until the 1970s. Town gas, which was commonly used for domestic and industrial purposes in the Perth region, was typically a mixture of several gases, including hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, and other hydrocarbons. The exact composition of town gas varied depending on the source and the manufacturing process, but hydrogen typically made up around 50% of the gas mixture.

Town gas was produced by heating coal or oil in the absence of air, a process known as gasification. The resulting gas was then purified and distributed through a network of pipes to homes, businesses, and factories. However, the use of town gas declined in the 20th century as natural gas became more widely available and affordable. Today, most gas networks around the world use natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane.

In the late 1960/70s the transition from ‘town gas’ to ‘natural gas’, known as the great switch, saw millions of home gas appliances upgraded to manage the different type of gas, as you can imagine many people were unhappy about this, change is not something people accept easily.

Fremantle Gas Works
The gas works in Fremantle, Western Australia, where up until the 1970s they produced hydrogen as part of their 'town gas' mixture.

Hydrogen Use Over the years

Hydrogen has been used in various ways in our homes throughout history, although its use has evolved over time.


  • Lighting: In the early 1800s, hydrogen was used to light homes in the form of gas lighting. Hydrogen gas was produced by reacting iron filings with sulphuric acid, and the gas was then burned to produce light. This form of lighting was eventually replaced by electric lighting in the early 20th century.

  • Heating: In the early 1900s, hydrogen was used in gas furnaces to provide heat for homes. However, this use was phased out as natural gas became the preferred fuel for heating.

  • In the mid-20th century, hydrogen was used in the space race as a fuel for rockets and spacecraft. NASA used liquid hydrogen as a fuel for the Saturn V rocket, which was used to launch astronauts to the moon.

  • Hydrogen has also been used in the chemical industry as a feedstock for the production of ammonia, methanol, and other chemicals.

  • Fuel cells: In recent years, hydrogen fuel cells have become an increasingly popular technology for generating electricity in homes. Fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water and heat as by products. These fuel cells can be used to power homes, providing electricity and heat without emitting greenhouse gases.

  • Hydrogen as a fuel: There has been interest in using hydrogen as a fuel for heating homes, as well as for cooking and other uses. However, widespread adoption of hydrogen as a fuel in homes has been hindered by the high cost of producing and storing hydrogen, as well as safety concerns related to handling the highly flammable gas.


Methods for producing hydrogen have evolved over time too, but some of the most common methods include:

  • Steam methane reforming: This process involves reacting methane (a component of natural gas) with steam to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

  • Electrolysis: This process involves using electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

  • Coal gasification: This process involves reacting coal with steam to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

  • Biomass gasification: This process involves heating biomass (such as wood chips or agricultural waste) in the presence of steam to produce hydrogen and other gases.


Today, hydrogen is produced using a variety of methods depending on the specific application and desired purity level. The most beneficial to mankind is renewable hydrogen, which is hydrogen made via electrolysis using renewable electricity such as solar, wind or pumped hydro which produce zero greenhouse gases.