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Ernest Solvay’s legacy is alive and kicking

From the prestigious conferences initiated in the early 20th century to today’s Solvay Prize, Solvay has always maintained a tradition of encouraging the advancement of scientific research. For the love of science, but also out of a long-standing sense of collaborative intelligence.

Few industrial companies, if any, have entertained throughout their history such as close relationship as Solvay has with the world of academic science, and curiosity-driven research. There is probably a lot to understand in that relationship in the fact that Ernest Solvay, the founder of the company, was a scientist himself. 

In fact, the day before his 23rd birthday, he patented a process for the production of soda ash with salt, ammonia and carbonic acid – producing soda ash was to become his company’s primary activity and the starting point of its success. This first patent was voided; the Belgian scientific authorities considered this chemical reaction had been theoretically known for a long time and didn’t deserve a patent. But Ernest Solvay remained determined, and two years later he filed a second patent describing the succession of equipment and operations rather than the principle itself. The year was 1863, and the Solvay adventure had just begun.

For the love of science

Over the course of the following decades, producing soda ash made Solvay extremely successful. But even as the head of a booming company, Ernest Solvay kept his proximity with the scientific world and his love for scientific research. To him, harnessing the power of science to generate business was simply not enough. In fact, he liked to say that his entrepreneurial journey had only one goal: to give him the financial independence to satisfy his passion for scientific research. He wanted to encourage science to constantly move forward regardless of its practical applications, and he understood that the best way to achieve that was to bring together the brightest scientific minds of the times so they could exchange ideas. What’s more, he considered all sciences to be worthy of interest, including social sciences, and believed they should be accessible to all.

By the late 19th century, Solvay as a company was renowned for its forward-thinking state of mind. It had implemented an extensive and avant-gardist welfare program for its workers and supported academic science in many different ways. Famous for the amount of foundations he created, he was even nicknamed the ‘Belgian Carnegie’. “This tradition of support for pure, academic science generated a tremendous amount of results in many scientific domains,” says Nicolas Coupain, Solvay’s Corporate Heritage Manager. While there was a strong personal dimension due to the founder’s interests – Ernest Solvay entertained personal relationships with many scientists and gave them grants using his own funds – there was also a clear connection with his company.

Ernest Solvay had thus acquired a reputation as a patron of sciences. That’s why Walther Nernst (1864-1941), a famous German chemist, turned to him when he realized that scientific progress was doomed to staying stuck if it remained within Germany alone and that he and his colleagues needed to find a way to a dialogue with their counterparts in France, England, the Netherlands, etc.

Is that what triggered the idea of what was about to become the most important scientific event in the world?

The world’s most prestigious scientific conference

Whatever the case may be, in 1911 Solvay organized an international scientific conference at the Hotel Métropole in Brussels, which would go down in history as the first Solvay Conference, inviting the most brilliant scientists in the field of physics to gather and discuss their research. Walther Nernst and Max Planck (1858-1947), the well-known German theoretical physicists, were its main organizers, and Hendrik Lorentz, a Dutch physicist who had won the Nobel Prize in 1902, its chairman.

The impact of this conference was tremendous. A precedent was set, and Ernest Solvay quickly decided to perpetuate it by founding the International Solvay Institute for Physics in 1912. In fact, it was also rapidly decided that these conferences should not stop at physics alone, and the International Solvay Institute for Chemistry was created the following year in order to organize the same type of conferences for chemistry – the two institutes would eventually merge in 1970 to become the “International Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry, founded by Ernest Solvay”.


What was so amazing about what Ernest Solvay and his scientist friends had managed to create in 1911? First of all, the guest list itself, certainly already impressive at the time, has been continuing to strike the mind of anyone even remotely interested in science for the past century, going down in history as probably the most amazing gathering of world famous scientists of all time. One can just imagine the level of the debates between  Albert EinsteinMarie CurieHenri PoincaréMartin KnudsenPaul Langevin, Max Planck, Walther Nernst and Hendrik Lorentz, all gathered in the same room talking about cutting edge physics… For the anecdote, Albert Einstein, 32, was the second youngest physicist present – the youngest one was Frederick Lindemann, a British physicist who would go on to become an advisor to Winston Churchill in the 1950s. 

The second remarkable thing about the first Solvay Conference was the scientific breakthrough it enabled. Its subject was “Radiation and the Quanta”, and it looked at the problems of having two approaches, namely classical physics and quantum theory, paving a whole new way of looking at physics, which, as we know today, would develop rapidly in the course of the following years. “In fact, the six or seven first Solvay conferences all lead to giant steps in the advancement of sciences,” says Nicolas Coupain. This means Ernest Solvay’s intuition was correct: put the greatest scientific minds of your time in the same room, and new ideas are bound to emerge that will lead to more advanced science down the road. It’s that simple, and it works.

Making history

The 5th conference, in 1927, is another one that made it into history books, as it hosted a famous debate between Albert Einstein and Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) that set the foundations for quantum physics, a theory that has enabled the development of technologies we consider vital in our everyday life, such as energy and digital communications.

Finally, one more thing about the first Solvay Conferences bears to be underlined: they were entirely sponsored by Ernest Solvay, using his own money. This wasn’t some sort of corporate-sponsored event put together to give the company a smart image. It was the doing of one man who loved science and sincerely believed in it. True to this belief, he granted total freedom of action to the invited scientists, and an independent scientific committee was created to establish the agenda of the conferences and the guest list for each one. The mission of the Solvay Institutes was to “support and develop curiosity-driven research in physics, chemistry and allied fields, with the purpose of enlarging and deepening the understanding of natural phenomena”, as its credo still states today. A mission that will be upheld despite the vicissitudes of the 21st century, as we will see…

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