The Cryogenic Laboratory of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes: An Early Case of Big Science

Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 299)


“The polar regions of physics appeal to the fighting spirit of scientists in the same way that the extreme North and South Poles appeal to the explorer” (Kamerlingh Onnes H, De beteekenis van nauwkeurige metingen bij zeer lage temperaturen. IJdo, Leiden, p 5, 1904). The Leiden-based cold pioneer Heike Kamerlingh Onnes used these words in his founder’s day speech in 1904, the year in which he served as rector of the University of Leiden. Polar expeditions fired the imagination. Just 1 year earlier, the Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen had succeeded in navigating the north-west passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. His heroic contest with British explorer Ronald Scott to be the first to reach the South Pole still had to take place. At the start of 1912, Scott’s team found a Norwegian flag planted at the Pole by Amundsen 1 month previously; tragically, Scott’s team was not to survive the return journey (Huntford R, The last place on earth. Pan Books, London, 1985). At the same time, Kamerlingh Onnes was involved in a struggle that itself was not bereft of danger. The goal of his journey was the descent to the absolute zero of temperature, −273 °C.


  1. Andrews, T. 1869. On the continuity of the gaseous and liquid states of matter. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 159: 575–590.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Cagniard de la Tour, C. 1822. Exposé de quelques resultats etc. Annales de Chimie et de Physique 21: 127–132 and 178–182.Google Scholar
  3. Dewar, J. 1898. Preliminary note on the liquefaction of hydrogen and helium. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 63: 256–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Dewar, J. 1901. The nadir of temperature and allied problems. Bakerian lecture. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 68: 360–366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Faraday, M. 1845. On the liquefaction and solidification of bodies generally existing as gases. Philosophical Transactions 135: 155–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Gavroglu, K., and Y. Goudaroulis. 1991. Through measurement to knowledge. The selected papers of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes 1853–1926. Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  7. Huntford, R. 1985. The last place on earth. London: Pan Books.Google Scholar
  8. Joule, J.P., and W. Thomson. 1852. Porous plug experiment. Philosophical Magazine 14: 481–492.Google Scholar
  9. Kamerlingh Onnes, H. 1882. De beteekenis van het quantitatief onderzoek in de natuurkunde. Leiden: IJdo.Google Scholar
  10. Kamerlingh Onnes, H. 1894. On the Cryogenic Laboratory at Leiden and on the production of very low temperatutes. Communications 14.Google Scholar
  11. Kamerlingh Onnes, H. 1896. Remarks on the liquefaction of hydrogen, on thermodynamical similarity, and on the use of vacuum vessels. Communications 23.Google Scholar
  12. Kamerlingh Onnes, H. 1904. De beteekenis van nauwkeurige metingen bij zeer lage temperaturen. Leiden: IJdo.Google Scholar
  13. Kamerlingh Onnes, H. 1906. Methods and apparatus used in the cryogenic laboratory at Leiden. X. How to obtain baths of constant and uniform temperature by means of liquid hydrogen. KNAW Proceedings 9(1): 156–180. Communications 94f.Google Scholar
  14. Kamerlingh Onnes, H. 1908a. Experiments on the condensation of helium by expansion. KNAW Proceedings 10(2): 744–747. Communications 105.Google Scholar
  15. Kamerlingh Onnes, H. 1908b. The liquefaction of helium, KNAW Proceedings 11: 168–185. Communications 108.Google Scholar
  16. Kipnis, A.Y., B.E. Yavelov, and J.S. Rowlinson. 1996. Van der Waals and molecular science. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  17. Knappert, L. 1906. De ramp van Leiden. Schoonhoven: Van Nooten.Google Scholar
  18. Laesecke, A. 2002. Through measurement to knowledge: The inaugural lecture of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (1882). Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology 107: 261–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Levelt-Sengers, J. 2002. How fluids unmix. Discoveries by the school of Van der Waals and Kamerlingh Onnes. Amsterdam: KNAW.Google Scholar
  20. Olszewski, K. 1896. Ein Versuch das Helium zu Verflüssigen. Annalen der Physik 59: 184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Olszewski, K. 1903. Apparate zur Verflüssigung von Luft und Wasserstoff. Annalen der Physik 10: 768–782.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. van Delft, D. 2007. Freezing physics; Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and the quest for cold. Amsterdam: Edita/KNAW.Google Scholar
  23. van Delft, D., and P. Kes. 2010. The discovery of superconductivity. Physics Today, September, 63: 38–43.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Director Museum Boerhaave, Professor Material Heritage of the SciencesLeiden UniversityLeidenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations