When did people first know about the phenomenon now known as “acid rain”? Think of a date. Odds are, you’re off by at least a century.
Robert Angus Smith was born in the early 1800s, and had two major interests: religion and chemistry. He spent his early school years studying to make a career as a minister in the Church of Scotland. It was only when he decided to take a few years off to see the world when he got a chance to go to Germany and study chemistry.
It’s tough to say what his legacy would have been if he had decided to stick with religion. To be honest, it’s tough to say what his legacy is anyway. He made an extremely important discovery, but it didn’t get the attention it deserved until long after his death.
When Smith came back to the UK, he studied sanitation and got various temporary positions, one of which led him to Manchester, England. The soot pollution in the air troubled him, as did the occasional times when he was asked to be an “expert witness” in cases of chemical contamination, with the understanding that his job was to give favorable testimony, not the truth. What bothered him most was the fact that the rain in Manchester was slightly, but noticeably, acidic. In 1852 he began spreading word about this phenomenon, which he called “acid rain.”
His scrupulous refusal to provide biased testimony, and his passionate work in what was then known as sanitation, and now known as environmentalism, never got him the big bucks, but they did get him a position as an “Alkali Inspector.” They also laid the groundwork that would kickstart the global movement against pollution a century later, when “acid rain” became a household word.