1838 - 1922

Ernest Solvay


“A scientific entrepreneur’s quest for an all-embracing system”

Ernest Solvay (1838-1922) was a prominent figure in the galaxy of champions of scientific and social progress active in Belgium at the turn of the twentieth century. With Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine - the founders of the Mundaneum - he shared the vision of an international science for the benefit of all. To him we owe the creation of leading research institutes and the organization of world-famous physics and chemistry councils.  Industrialist, philanthropist, committed citizen, and experienced Alpine climber, this exhibition explores the multiple facets of a character who left a fertile heritage.

Entrepreneur and utopian?

Scientist and idealist?

Business owner and social reformer?

Ernest Solvay united all these inherently contradictory features. He was, however, neither a chemist nor an engineer when, at the age of 25, he created Solvay & Cie with his brother Alfred and a handful of private investors. His autodidactic background led him to look at things from new and original angles, and make a clean break with the past.  This was at once a strength, enabling him to reinvent the soda ash industry ... and a weakness when it came to renewing a whole field of theoretical physics. After outstanding industrial success, he devoted a large part of his life to the advancement of science. But rather than pure scientist, he was more a “patron of the sciences”.  It is as such that he made a lasting contribution to international science.

Ernest and Alfred (1840-1894) Solvay, founders of the ammonia-soda industry. © Solvay Heritage Collection

“A man of science I have not had the good fortune to be: I did not receive a classical education, and the problems of the industry have absorbed all my time, but it is true that I have not ceased to pursue a scientific goal, because I love science and I expect from it the advancement of humanity” (Ernest Solvay speech, 1893)

First patent filed by Ernest Solvay for the manufacturing of soda ash, 1861. © Solvay Heritage Collection

A supportive environment

Though self-taught, Ernest Solvay could count on an environment that enabled him to achieve industrial success, starting with his relatively affluent bourgeois family that supported him in his efforts. With his brother Alfred, they formed a powerful pair. A teacher named Macardus inculcated the bases of the scientific method into him at the Institut St. Berthuin in Malonne. His uncle Semet allowed Ernest to carry out his first experiments in the Semet gas plant. A family friend, Guillaume Nélis, recommended him to investors Eudore Pirmez and Valentin Lambert. The latter proved precious sources of legal and technical advice. Once the company was launched, talented engineers and financiers implemented Ernest's vision for international expansion of the Solvay process.

The thousand uses of soda ash (1900). Produced from four raw materials, soda ash and its derivatives have a wide variety of industrial applications, including glass, textiles and detergents. © Solvay Heritage Collection

Atypical industry captains

Ernest and Alfred Solvay are known first and foremost for developing the eponymous process for producing soda ash using ammonia from 1863 onwards, and then successfully controlling its global deployment.  This continuous and elegant process enabled Solvay & Cie to become one of the most powerful chemical groups worldwide. The atypical form of this family-owned multinational, combining directly-controlled companies and partnerships, reflected the business philosophy of the Solvay brothers, characterized by a long-term industrial vision combining discretion and cooperation.

Ernest Solvay visiting the soda ash plant in Bernburg, Germany, in 1890. © Solvay Heritage Collection

Dreams of unity

Ernest Solvay viewed science as his “fifth child”, apprising his relatives of his desire to allocate to it a significant portion of his time and fortune. A follower of the fashionable positivism of his day, Solvay wished to see science rule the world on a rational basis. The concept of energy was central to his thought. Even if his personal scientific work would have little echo and posterity, his sponsorship of others bore rich fruit.

Ernest Solvay's "bedside picture" (1877), consisting of portraits of thinkers and scholars who influenced him in his scientific quest. © Solvay Heritage Collection
Schematic table of the work pursued by Ernest Solvay, drafted by Émile Tassel (1920). © Solvay Heritage Collection

Dedicated, skilled scientific personnel.

The quality of Ernest Solvay's entourage was no coincidence. He possessed the ability to bring together and retain the loyalty of a core of partners and employees who implemented his ideas. In his private laboratory he employed engineers and scientists, the most accomplished of whom were his personal secretary Charles Lefébure, and Émile Tassel, professor of physics at the University of Brussels. Five high quality assistants also worked there over the long term (Herzen, Hostelet, Warnant, Brichaux, Lucion), together with temporary collaborators hired on a project by project basis (Cauderlier, Wissinger, Lagrange, Gerard, Goldschmidt, ...).

Charles Lefébure (1862-1943), Ernest Solvay’s personal secretary and confidant. © Solvay Heritage Collection
Émile Tassel (1862-1922), Professor at the ULB Faculty of Applied Sciences and close scientific adviser to Ernest Solvay. © Solvay Heritage Collection
Pure and applied physics work at Ernest Solvay's private laboratory in the Rue des Champs Elysées in Ixelles, 1900. © Solvay Heritage Collection
Ernest Solvay's private laboratory in Ixelles, 1900. © Solvay Heritage Collection

A key player in the institutionalization of science

Solvay's extensive and unequalled patronage made him a key player in the institutionalization of science both in his native country of Belgium and internationally.  In 1895 he commissioned the famous physician Paul Héger to develop an Institute of Physiology. Engineer Émile Waxweiler was the great organizer of the Solvay Institute of Sociology (1902) and the Solvay Business School (1903). These three institutes, located at the heart of the "Cité scientifique” in the Parc Léopold of Brussels would subsequently be attached to the University. Over the course of their long existence they would produce a great number of pioneering and recognized works.

The “Cité scientifique” of the Parc Léopold in Brussels (view from the early 20th century) reflected Solvay's own organic system of thought in which the exact sciences and the humanities need to cooperate and enrich one another in order to better understand and control social phenomena. From left to right, the Institutes of Physiology (1895), Commerce (1903) and Sociology (1902).
Paul Héger (1846-1925), friend and personal physician of Ernest Solvay, Professor of Medicine and Chairman of the Board of the ULB. Paul Héger was a strong supporter of experimental research. © ULB Archives
Émile Waxweiler (1867-1916), the first director of the Institute of Sociology and the Solvay Business School. © ULB Archives

Solvay, Otlet and La Fontaine: similar ideals, complementary work

The Solvay Sociology Institute was preceded by an Institute of Social Sciences founded in 1894 at the Hotel Ravenstein.  The International Sociological Bibliography Office, established the year before by Otlet and La Fontaine, was housed in the very same building. These two institutions, as close intellectually as physically, and both dedicated to emerging forms of science, cooperated fruitfully for several years.

First International Conference of Bibliography (1895). Photo taken in the gardens of the Hotel Ravenstein in Brussels, which also housed the Institute of Social Sciences founded by Solvay.

A socio-economic programme inspired by science

Beyond his interest in pure science, Ernest Solvay also was keen to be seen as a committed citizen and progressive thinker.  Although not an established politician, he served two terms as a Liberal senator (1892-1894, 1897-1900). In this capacity he proposed a socio-economic model based on productivism, putting into place continuous training mechanisms (vocational training for the unemployed, worker training) and enlightened state interventionism (free socialization of goods, a social accounting system replacing currencies, state participation in business creation). He developed close relationships with the leaders of the socialist movement, including Émile Vandervelde.

High level international outreach

Physics and chemistry were Ernest Solvay's two favourite disciplines. Despite this they were the last ones that he was to sponsor.  It was only in 1911 that German physical chemist Walther Nernst proposed to him a major project.  This was to arrange a meeting, in a neutral location - Brussels - of the cream of European physicists to examine an at-the-time insoluble subject, the theory of radiation and quanta. It was this first Solvay Council, followed by others under the chairmanship of Hendrik Lorentz, that permitted the emergence of quantum physics in the 1920s. Similar councils were then organized for chemistry, with permanent institutions founded to ensure continuity and support research through the granting of scholarships.

First Solvay Physics Council in 1911 at the Metropole Hotel in Brussels, bringing together the best physicists of the day to address the issue of radiation and quanta. (Photographer : Benjamin Couprié).
The 5th Solvay International Physics Council on electrons and photons (1927) was probably one of the most important meetings in the history of physics. It was here that the new theory of quantum physics took off (Photographer: Benjamin Couprié)

A Lasting Legacy

Even if Ernest Solvay's personal scientific quest proved relatively unsuccessful, his active philanthropy produced lasting fruit. His willingness to foster basic and applied research, despite the risk of hitting impasses, enabled many natural and social scientists to deliver high quality work. The independence necessary for this result was ensured by the choice of key men like Waxweiler, Héger and Lorentz, who had the intelligence to respect Ernest Solvay's views while adapting them to academic reality.

To the rescue of a population threatened by famine

During the First World War, Ernest Solvay, by now already an old man, could not remain inactive in the face of the widespread shortages facing the Belgian population. A National Relief and Food Committee (CNSA) was set up by politicians and industrialists in 1914. Its chairman was Ernest Solvay, who donated a million francs, with Emile Francqui in charge of day-to-day management.  This private organization, by coordinating supplies from neutral countries, acted as a sort of "second Belgian government" during the conflict. After the liberation of Belgium, King Albert I visited Ernest Solvay at his home and appointed him a Minister of State a few days later.

Kitchen of the National Relief and Food Committee in January 1915. © Solvay Heritage Collection.

Higher and higher

In his private life, Ernest Solvay was neither a socialite nor an art collector. It was in mountaineering especially that he found peace of mind. Given Ernest Solvay's fragile health, his doctor and friend Paul Héger recommended the practice of this sport then in vogue in the Belgian upper bourgeoisie. Until over 80 years old, he undertook countless climbs in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, notably in the company of King Albert I. A member of the Belgian and Swiss Alpine Clubs, he made possible the construction of the Solvay refuge on the Matterhorn, the highest in Europe, well known to modern-day climbers.

Ernest Solvay, now over 80, on one of his last alpine ascents. © Solvay Heritage Collection.
Caricature of Ernest Solvay the climber by "Lumor" in 1916. © Solvay Heritage Collection.
"Belgique I" (1909), the first Belgian airship, built by Robert Goldschmidt (1877-1935) and funded by Ernest Solvay. Goldschmidt, a brilliant inventor, developed several wireless systems, as well as the first microfiche device for a certain ... Paul Otlet. He also contributed to the organizing of the first Solvay Physics Council, by putting the physicist Walther Nernst in contact with Solvay who financed it. © Solvay Heritage Collection.

Select bibliography:

Kenneth Bertrams, Nicolas Coupain, Ernst Homburg, Solvay. History of a Multinational Family Firm, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2013.

Nicolas Coupain, Ernest Solvay’s scientific networks. From personal research to academic patronage, in The European Physical Journal Special Topics, Volume 224, Issue 10, pp 2075-2089, The Early Solvay Councils and the Advent of the Quantum Era, Sept. 2015.

Andrée Despy-Meyer, Didier Devriese (eds), Ernest Solvay et son temps, Archives de l'Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, 1997.

Louis D'Or et Anne-Marie Wirtz-Cordier, Ernest Solvay, Mémoires de la Classe des sciences / Académie Royale de  Belgique. Collection in-8°; 2nd series., vol. 44, fasc. 2., pp. 95 et seqq.

Paul Héger, Charles Lefébure, Vie d'Ernest Solvay, Lamertin, Brussels, 1929.

Pierre Marage et Grégoire Wallenborn (eds), The Solvay councils and the birth of modern physics, ULB, Brussels, 1995.

Notes, lettres et discours d'Ernest Solvay, Vol. I: Gravitique et Physiologie; Vol. II: Politique et Science Sociale, Lamertin, Brussels, 1929.

Credits: Story

Conception — Nicolas
Coupain, Historien et « Corporate Heritage Manager » du groupe Solvay

Conseil — Stéphanie Manfroid, responsable des archives, Mundaneum
Conseil — Delphine Jenart, directrice adjointe, Mundaneum
Conception technique — Raphaèle Cornille, responsable des projets numériques, Mundaneum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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