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Milestones:Discovery of Superconductivity, 1911 - GHN: IEEE Global History Network
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Milestones:Discovery of Superconductivity, 1911

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Discovery of Superconductivity, 1911


On 8 April 1911, in this building, Professor Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and his collaborators, Cornelis Dorsman, Gerrit Jan Flim, and Gilles Holst, discovered superconductivity.   They observed that the resistance of mercury approached  "practically zero" as its temperature was lowered to 3 kelvins.  Today, superconductivity makes many electrical technologies possible,  including Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and high-energy particle accelerators.


The plaque can be viewed mounted in the entrance hall to the Kamerlingh Onnes Building at Leiden University in Leiden, The Netherlands, which, in 1911, housed the Physical Laboratory where the phenomena of superconductivity was discovered.

Superconducting offers a class of electrical conducting materials which exhibit (near) zero electrical loss and a number of quantum mechanical properties which can result in many novel and unique electrical and electronic devices and systems.

When a sample is in the superconducting state, which for all known superconducting elements, compounds and alloys occur at temperatures below about minus 100 C, samples can carry very large electric currents without any (or, at least, very little) Joule heating.  Thus, one can build electrical machinery, large electromagnets and high current carrying power transmission cables that can operate very efficiently without any dissipation; the only energy required by these superconducting devices and systems is for the refrigeration required to maintain the device at temperatures below its critical (superconducting) transition temperature.   In practice, large superconducting components, devices and systems can have overall electrical power requirements which can be two to five orders of magnitude smaller than corresponding devices and systems built using conventional resistive (and hence, dissipative) technologies.

Superconducting magnets and magnetic systems have been the enabling technology in a number of medical diagnostic applications, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), as well as most of the recent and future High Energy Physics particle accelerators such at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Geneva, Switzerland).  The technology is also currently under evaluation for use in making the national electric power grids more energetically efficient by enabling improved power transmission, low loss power transformers and fault current limiters, etc. 

For electronic applications of superconductivity,  Josephson Junction devices are used in the internationally accepted voltage standard and in ultra sensitive magnetometers which have been used in geophysical exploration and in non-contacting, non-invasive magnetocardiography, magnetoencephalography, localization of focal epilepsy and cognitive neuroscience studies.   Furthermore, Josephson junction technology has the potential to yield digital logic chips with clock frequencies at least an order of magnitude faster than possible with current or projected semiconductor technology.

Over the years, there have been two primary impediments to the use of superconducting components, devices and systems.   The first obstacle is whether the required superconductor components  (wire and conductor cables, digital logic and memory cells, magnetic field sensing devices, etc., etc.) can be fabricated from superconducting materials and, then whether thy can be build at an economical fashion.  (Most of the so-called High Temperature Superconductor (HTS) materials are ceramic in nature and have very complex crystallographic structures which result in very complex metallurgical properties and thus are relative difficult to form into useful configurations require for  electrical and electronic applications.)  The second major obstacle has been the need for  a suitable cryogenic environment that is cost effective.  The balance between enhanced electrical and electronic performance and the “burden:” of providing an energy-efficient and reliable cryogenic refrigeration system is very complex.   In many of the instances cited above, it had been deemed advantageous to use the selected superconducting system compared to units fabricated using conventional  (resistive) technologies as the performance advantage achieved by using the superconducting approach far outweighed the “cryogenic burden”. 

The discovery of the phenomena of superconductivity at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, by Prof. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and his colleagues in 1911 was a totally unexpected result, which opened a completely new area of research in the science and technology of electrical conduction in  materials and in the development of energy efficient electrical and electronic devices and systems. Prof. H. Kamerlingh Onnes and his collaborators at the University of Leiden were in a unique position as helium had first been liquefied at the University of Leiden in 1908, forwhich Prof, Kamerlingh Onnes received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1913. 

Until about 1923, the Leiden laboratory was the only research laboratory in the world where liquid helium was available, and thus where measurements could be made at temperaturesbelow about 14 K, the lowest temperature that could be reached using a liquid hydrogen bath at reduced pressures. After liquefying helium in 1908, Kamerlingh Onnes started a series of investigations which he called “Further Experiments with liquid helium”  which included the investigation of the electrical properties of conductors in the temperature range below14 K.  

At the beginning of the 20 th century, there were three theories for the resistance of pure metals at temperatures approaching 0 K.  One theory said that the resistance of pure metals would approach zero as the temperature was lowered toward 0 K (the Drude theory), another that the resistance would flatten off and remain constant down to 0 K (theory by Matthiessen) and the third (proposed by Lord Kelvin) predicted that the resistance would increase and go toward infinity at 0 K.   The choice of pure mercury for these studies was made as mercury at room temperature was a liquid and could be made very pure by repeated distillations.   During their first experiments on 8 April 1911, Kamerlingh Onnes and his co-workers observed hat the resistance of the mercury sample decreased abruptly as the temperature of the helium reservoir, in which the sample was immersed, was reduced toward 3 K.  At low temperatures Kamerlingh Onnes reported that the resistance of “mercury practically zero”.    In subsequent experiments in May 1911, they observed that, when the mercury sample was cooled to the lowest possible temperature using a helium reservoir,  the “practically zero” resistance state was again realized and that as the temperature was slowly raised, at a temperature near 4 K, the resistance of the sample abruptly reappeared, with the transition between “zero” and full resistance occurring over a very narrow temperature range, of the order of 0.1 Kelvin.    These observations contradicted not only the Kelvin and Matthiessen theories, but also the Drude theory that predicted a gradual decree in resistance to zero resistance as the temperature was reduxed toward 0 K.   This new state of electrical conduction at low temperatures was initially called “supraconductivity’ by Onnes.

During the 100 years since its discovery, the phenomena of “supraconductivity” (or“superconductivity” as it was later known) has been observed in more than 10,000 elements, compounds and alloys, but, in all instances, the phenomena was always only observed at temperatures  well below room temperature.  The highest know superconducting transition temperatures found to date, are all below about 170 K (or about minus 100 C.).   Thus a scientific study of the electrical behavior of pure metals at low temperatures by Prof. H. Kamerlingh Onnes and his colleagues lead to the totally unexpected discovery of the phenomena of superconductivity on 8 April 1911 in Room 1 the Physical Laboratory of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.


==References and Further Reading ==
The initial reports on the research on superconductivity at the University of Leiden by Prof. H. Kamerlingh Onnes and colleagues originally appears (in English) in the “Communications of the Physical Laboratory of the University of Leiden” as follows:

Commun. no.120b (28 Apr. 1911) ""Further experiments with liquid helium: The resistance of pure mercury at helium temperatures".

Commun. no.122b (27 May 1911) ""Further experiments with liquid helium: The disappearance of the resistance of mercury".

Commun. No. 123 (24 June 1911) ""Further experiments with liquid helium: A helium cryostat. Remarks on the preceding Communication".

Commun. no. 124 (25 Nov. 1911) ""Further experiments with liquid helium: On the sudden change in the rate at which the resistance of mercury disappears".

Commun. no. l33a,b,c (22 Febr. 1913) ""Further experiments with liquidhelium: The potential difference necessary for the electric current through mercury below 4.19 K".

Commun. no.133d (31 May 1913) ""Further experiments with liquid helium: The sudden disappearance of the ordinary resistance of tin, and the supraconductive state of lead".

Commun. no.139f (28 Febr. 1914) ""Further experiments with liquid helium: The Appearance of resistance in supraconductors, which are brought into a magnetic field, at a threshold value of the field".

Commun. no.140b (28 Febr. 1914) / Commun. no. 140c (30 May 1914) ""Further experiments with liquid helium: The imitation of an Ampere molecular current or of a permanent magnet by means of a supraconductor".

Commun. no.14lb (27 June 1914) ""Further experiments with liquid helium: The persistence of currents without electromotive force in supraconducting circuits".

Suppl., no.34b (Sept.-Oct. 1913) "Report on researches made in the Leiden cryogenic laboratory between the second and third international congress of refrigeration". (Washington-Chicago 1913)

par. 4 "Maximum density of liquid helium".

par. 5 "Superconductors".

Suppl. no.35 (Dec. 1913) "Investigations into the properties of substances at low temperature physics, which led, amongst other things, the preparation of liquid helium" (Nobel lecture)


Selected references on the discovery, history, theory and applications of superconductivity written for the student and interested members of the public, which do not require specific technical background (except as noted):

R. de Bruyn Oubuter, “Heike Kamerlingh Onnes’ Discovery of Superconductivity”, Scientific America. vol. 276, pp 96 (1997) This article describes the early research done at University of Leiden on the liquefaction of helium and the discovery of superconductivity.

D. van Delft and P. H. Kes, ‘The discovery of superconductivity”, Physics Today, vol. 63, no. 9, September 2011, pp. 38-43 This article recounts some unknown , until now, details about the discovery of superconductivity taken from Prof. Kamerlingh Onnes’s notebooks, which were only recently (2009) found in the Kamerlingh Onnes Archvie housed in the Boerhaarve Museum in Leiden, The Netherlands.

J. de Nobel, ‘The Discovery of Superconductivity’, Physics Today, September 1996, pages 40-42.

D. van Delft, ‘Little cup of helium, big science’, Physics Today, March 2008, 36-42.

S. Blundell, “SUPERCONDUCTIVITY: A Very Short Introduction”, (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York) 2009

K. Mendelsohn, “The Quest for Absolute Zero: The Meaning of Low Temperature Research”, (Taylor and Francis) 1977

R. Simon and A. Smith , “Superconductors: Conquering Technology's New Frontier”, (Plenum, 1988).

http://www.aip.org/history/mod/superconductivity/ An Internet site sponsored by the American Institute of Physics contains explanations, narratives and video clips dealing with superconductivity. Also contains links to many books and other websites dealing with superconductivity.

http://www.superconductors.org/ This web site contains a great deal of information on superconductivity, its history, explanation of various aspects of superconductivity, animations, links to research organizations involved in superconductive research, books etc..

http://www.aip.org/history/mod/superconductivity/ An Internet site sponsored by the American Institute of Physics contains explanations, narratives and video clips dealing with superconductivity and contains links to many books and other websites dealing with superconductivity. Most of these links are suitable for student and interested members of the public, although some may require an appreciation of quantum mechanics.

http://www.absolutezerocampaign.org/ “Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold” ” was a two-part Public Broadcasting System ({BS) (USA) television special that was broadcast in 2007, which showed how civilization has been affected by the mastery of cold. Contains a section on superconductivity and links to other websites dealing with low temperatures phenomena and superconductivity.

http://www.msm.cam.ac.uk/ascg/lectures/ This web site describes a series of video lectures on all aspects of Superconductivity, which was prepared over several years in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of superconductivity. This project, which features contributions from leading world experts in academia and industry, was organized and led by Dr Bartek Glowacki of the University of Cambridge (UK). These video lectures cover fundamentals, materials, and electronic and large-scale applications of superconductivity. Most of the lectures are suitable for students and interested members of the public while some require knowledge of quantum mechanics to be fully appreciated. These “Lectures on Superconductivity” are currently available free of charge online at this URL, and, eventually, will be available in DVD format


Selected references on the discovery, science and technology of superconductivity written for historians and scholars with some technical background:

R. de Rruyn Ouboter “ Superconductivity: Discoveries During the Early Years of Low Temperature Research at Leiden” , IEEE Trans MAGNETICS, vol. MAG-23, no. 2, pp. 355- 370 (March 1987)

This article is slightly more detailed and technical then the one cited above by de Bruyn Oubuter and relies heavily on various communications from the Communications from the Physical Laboratory of the University of Leiden, some of which are enumerated above.

P. F. Dahl, “SUPERCONDUCTIVITY: Its Historical Roots and Developments form Mercury to the Ceramic Oxides” (American Institute for Physics, New York) 1992

J. Matricon and G. Waysand, “The COLD WARS: The Story of Superconductivity”, (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ 1994)

T. P. Sheahen, “Introduction to High-Temperature Superconductivity”, (Plenum Press, New York and London, 1994)

R. M. Hazen, The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor”, (Simon & Schuster; New York; First edition, 1988)

B. Schechter, The Path of No Resistance: The Story of the Revolution in Superconductivity”, (Touchstone Publishing, New York 1989)

E. A. Lynton , Superconductivity, London, Methuen & Co., Ltd. 196

L. Hoddeson, E. Braun, J. Teichamn and S. Weart, “Out of the Crystal Maze – Chapters from the History of Solid State Physics” (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1992), See Chapter 8 – Collective Phenomena pp 489-616

V. D. Hunt, “Superconductivity Sourcebook”, (Wiley Interscience Publication, New York, 1989)

M. Tinkham, “Introduction to Superconductivity” (Dover Publications, 2nd Ed.) 2004

T. Van Duzer, and C. W. Turner, “Principles of Superconductive Devices and Circuits”. London, Arnold, 1981.

T. P. Orlando and K. A. Delin, “Foundations of Applied Superconductivity” (Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1991)

A. M. Kadin, “Introduction to Superconducting Circuits”, (John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1999).

K. K. Likharev, “Dynamics of Josephson Junctions and Circuits”, (Gordon and Breach, 1991).

“Special Issue on APPLICATIONS OF SUPERCONDUCTIVITY”, Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 92, no. 10 (October 2004), T Van Duzer and W. V. Hassenzahl, Eds., This issue contains 14 articles on electronic and large-scale applications of superconductivity and cryogenic refrigeration written by authorities in their respective fields intended for readers with a sound technical background in superconductivity.

http://www.aip.org/history/mod/superconductivity/01.html “Introduction to the History of Superconductivity” prepared by Prof. Charles Slichter (University of Illinois-Urbana IL (USA) in both text and as a video prepared for “ for physics students and scientists”. This is a fairly concise narrative of the history of superconductivity from its discovery until about 1972 when the Nobel Prize was presented to John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer for the BCS theory of superconductivity

“Applied Superconductivity Conference” This conference, which is held biannually on even numbered years, is the premier world wide conference on applied superconductivity at which the most recent research and development activities are presented. The transactions of the most recent Applied Superconductivity Conferences have been published in IEEE Transactions as flows:

ASC 2008 IEEE Trans. Appl. Super., vol. 19, no. 3 (June 2009)

ASC-2006 IEEE Trans. Appl. Super., vol. 17, no. 2 )June 2007)

ASC-2004 IEEE Trans. Appl. Super., vol. 15, no. 2 (June 2005)

ASC-2002 IEEE Trans. Appl. Super., vol. 13, no. 2 (June 2003)

ASC-2000 IEEE Trans. Appl. Super., vol. 11, no. 1 (March 2001)

ASC-1998 IEEE Trans. Appl. Super., vol. 9, no. 2 (June 1999)

ASC-1996 IEEE Trans. Appl. Super., vol. 7, no. 2 (June 1997)

ASC-1994 IEEE Trans. Appl. Super., vol. 5, no. 2 (June 1995 )

ASC-1992 IEEE Trans. Appl. Super., vol. 3 no. 1 (March, 1993)

ASC-1990 IEEE Trans. MAG. Vol. 27, no. 2 (March 1991)

ASC-1988 IEEE Trans. MAG, vol. 25, no. 2 (March 1989)

ASC-1986 IEEE Trans. MAG, Vol. 23, no. 2 (March 1987)

ASC-1984 IEEE Trans. MAG. Vol. 21, no. 2, (March 1985)

ASC-1982 IEEE Trans. MAG. Vol. 19, no. 3, (March 1983)

ASC-1980 IEEE Trans. MAG. Vol. 17, no. 1 (January 1981)

ASC-1978 IEEE Trans. MAG. Vol. 15, no. 1 (January 1979)

ASC-1976 IEEE Trans. MAG. Vol. 13, no. 1 (January 1977)

ASC 1974 IEEE Trans MAG, vol. 11, no. 3 (March 1975)


Proposal and Nomination

Milestone-Proposal:DISCOVERY OF SUPERCONDUCTIVITY 1911

Milestone-Nomination:DISCOVERY OF SUPERCONDUCTIVITY 1911

Letter from the site owner giving permission to place IEEE milestone plaque on the property


Superconductivity Milestone Support Letter

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