Heike Kamerlingh Onnes


A Dutch physicist, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes was the pioneer of refrigeration techniques and the one who studied how materials behave when they are cooled to almost absolute zero temperature. He was also the the first person to liquefy helium, and because of his experiments concerning cryogenics as well as extremely low temperature, he was able to discove superconductivity. He also noted how the rate of electrical resistance can vanish at much lower temperatures for certain materials.

Early Life and Educational Background

Heike was born on the 21st of September in 1853 and was a native of Groningen in the Netherlands. Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, his father, owned brickworks near his birth town. Anna Gerdina Coers, his mother, was an architect’s daughter from Arnhem. His exposure to such fields may have piqued his interest when it came to making his very own discoveries later on in his life.

He was educated at the local Hoogere Burgerschool which was a native secondary school that did not have classical languages. After spending the required time for secondary school, he was able to get supplementary education on Latin and Greek from Leyden J.M. van Bemmelen who later became his Chemistry professor. After his supplementary education on classical languages, he went to the University of Groningen where he worked on obtaining the “candidaats” degree.

A year after studying at the University of Groningen, he proceeded to Heidelberg where he furthered his education from 1871 up to 1873. After his time there, he made his way back to Groningen and this was where he was able to pass his “doctoraal” exams in 1879. A year later, he was able to obtain his doctoral degree and he had his thesis called the New Proofs of the Rotation of the Earth which was originally entitled Nieuwebewijzenvoor de aswenteling der aarde.

In this doctoral work, he proved through theoretical and experimental means how the Foucault’s pendulum experiment must be seen as a kind of special, large group phenomena which, when simplified, can prove how the earth moved in a rotational manner. In 1881, Heike published Algemeenetheorie der vloeistoffen or the general theory of liquids which discussed the kinetic theory of matter in liquid state. Here, he approached his work using the Van der Waal law while also having a mechanistic back up to it.

His work on the general theory of liquids sparked his lifelong dedication to investigate more on how matter behaves when subjected to very low temperatures. He had his inaugural address known as the importance of quantitative research in physics where he said his now famous motto: “Knowledge through measurement” or “Door metentotweten.” Little did he realize this belief had materialized because of his appreciation of how important measurements were concerning his lifelong engagement in scientific experiments.

Scientific Career and Endeavors

It was in 1871 when his outstanding skills in solving scientific problems were made obvious at the young age of 18. That year he received a gold medal for winning a competition which was held by the University of Utrecht’s Natural Sciences Faculty. The following year he received a silver medal from the University of Groningen.

While he was still working on his doctoral degree, he was an assistant at the Polytechnicum which was in Delft. He also became a lecturer in the area for a year from 1881. Because of this, he was appointed as the Professor of Experimental Physics and Meteorology after P.L. Rijke held the same post.

After he got appointed as the chair of Physics, he made changes to the Physical Laboratory which is now named after him and is called the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory. He made the necessary changes so that the place would be fitted to be the most suitable place for his own program. More particularly, the changes he made were aimed towards having his own cryogenic laboratory that would help him verify the idea Van der Waal had about corresponding states of matter in relation to the temperature they are being subjected to.

It took a while before his efforts to reach very low temperatures paid off. It was in 1908 when he was able to liquefy helium. He was able to bring its temperature down to only 0,9°K which was, back then, the nearest temperature to absolute zero. It was because of this achievement that he was able to justify the saying which claims that the coldest area on the planet was Leyden. It was because of this successful experimentation about low temperatures that he became a Nobel Laureate for Physics. Later on and in the same laboratory, W.J. de Haas and W.H. Keesom had experiments where they also aimed to reach the absolute zero mark.


Years later, his laboratory became the place where more important breakthroughs were made and this earned him worldwide recognition. Such studies included research about thermodynamics, radioactivity laws, as well as different observations on electrical, magnetic, and optical phenomena. The study of fluorescence and phosphorescence, along with the polarization plane’s magnetic rotation and how crystals absorbed spectra in the magnetic field, were also brought to light in his laboratory.

His more momentous discovery was superconductivity of certain pure metals like mercury. This discovery was made in 1911. In this experiment, other metals he used included tin and lead which were both subjected to extremely low temperatures.

The great results of experiments done by Heike were published in the Communications of the Physical Laboratory at Leyden. They were also published in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Amsterdam. Because of the significance of his work and the breakthroughs he was able to make, a lot of foreign men of science went to Leyden to have a chance at working in his laboratory.

Outside the laboratory, he was known as a family man who also extended a helping hand to those who needed it. He was married to Maria Adriana Wilhelmina Elisabeth Bijleveld. With his wife, he had one son named Albert who later on became a civil servant at The Hague.