Subject: Walther Loeb and the Miller Spark Discharge Experiments (Chemical
From: hpyockey at aol.com (HPYockey)
Date: 18 Feb 1996
Reproducing the Miller spark discharge experiment is not a good one for a
high school laboratory. lt isn't even a good one for the college
The atmosphere of the early earth was
not as Miller supposed. It was neutral not reducing. There never was a
primeval soup. See my comment on this in "Information in bits and bytes"
BioEssays v17 pp85-88 (1995) See further comment in my book Information
Theory and Molecular Biology Cambridge University Press 1992.
I will send reprints to anyone who sends me his snail mail address.
The Miller-Urey experiment was not even original. The whole thing was done
by Walther Loeb in 1913 seventeen years before Miller was born (ne 1930)
and 40 years before Miller published his first paper on the subject.
Loeb's publications make it clear that he was the first man to produce an
amino acid in the classic "possible prebiotic reducing (sic) atmosphere"
of carbon dioxide, ammonia and water by means of an electrical discharge.
The references to Walther Loeb's work are as follows:
Ueber das Verhalten des Formamids unter der Wirkung der stillen
Entlandung. Ein Beitrag zur Frage der Stickstoff-Assimilation
Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft volume 46 (1913) pages
In English: The Effect of Silent Discharge on the Reactions of Formamide.
A Contribution to the Question of Nitrogen Assimilation published in the
Reports of the German Chemical Society (1913).
The first sentence in this paper announced the purpose of the work that
led to the formation of glycine in the silent electric discharge: "The
question of natural nitrogen fixation is especially interesting in that it
presents the source of the first organic nitrogen containing product for
the formation of albumin bodies (that is, proteins)."
Loeb concludes his paper by saying:
"There is no doubt that according to previous results the amino acid found
here is glycine. Here succeeding for the first time, an amino acid has
been produced artificially from the input products of the natural
synthesis, which in any case, in the simplest phase, plays a role in the
formation of natural protein as the final products of the natural
synthesis of carbonic acid [carbon dioxide], ammonia and water without
application of other materials, purely through supplying a special energy
form that remains in close connection with the radiation."
Upon reading Loeb's papers, published over many years, I found that he
knew exactly what he was doing. [My translation]
How could Loeb have said more clearly that he was working on a "prebiotic"
experiment to synthesize "prebiotic elements of protein"?
Stanley Miller, in his 1955 paper, "Production of some organic compounds
under possible primitive Earth conditions". Journal of the American
Chemical Society volume 77, pp2351-2361 (1955). cited the 1913 reference
in which Loeb reported finding glycine in the silent electrical discharge.
He mistakenly stated that Loeb used carbon MONOXIDE in his silent electric
discharge tube. If that had that been the case it would give the
impression that Loeb was not interested in finding "prebiotic compounds"
in the electric discharge. Upon actually reading Loeb's papers in German,
I found that he plainly had not carried out his experiments in carbon
MONOXIDE but rather in damp carbon DIOXIDE and ammonia, the same
environment often presumed (mistakenly) by Miller and Urey and many others
to have been that of the early Earth. This false impression is due to a
mistranslation and that may be why Loeb's priority in this work has been
ignored. The German word for carbon monoxide is Kohlenoxyd, the word for
carbon dioxide is Kohlensaeure (literally, carbonic acid)-terms that are
easy enough to tell apart.
As late as 1983 Miller and Schleschinger J. Mol. Evol. v19 pp376-382 quote
Loeb's 1913 paper as using carbon monoxide not the correct carbon dioxide.
Detailed references can be found to Loeb's work in "The Electrochemistry
of gases and other dielectrics" by G. Glockler and S. C. Lind; John Wiley
(New York) 1939. This book mistranslates Kohlensaere as carbon monoxide.
Perhaps this is the source of Miller's mistranslation in Miller
"Production of some organic compounds under possible primitive Earth
conditions". Journal of the American Chemical Society volume 77,
Glocker and Lind is a compilation of abstracts of papers on
electrochemistry. It has a complete list of Loeb's papers and those of
many others on the question of the formation of organic materials under
the silent electrical discharge.
It is clear that Loeb thought his discovery of the formation, by means of
electrical energy, of biologically important substances such as glycine,
formic acid, formaldehyde, butyric acid, fatty acids and other compounds
was significant:See also Walther Loeb and A. Sato Zur Frage der
Elektrokultur I Mitteilung Die Einflussung von Enzymreaction durch die
Biochemische Zeitschrift volume 69 pp1-35 (1915) He and Sato had this to
"On the ground of these relationships and practical knowledge one must
conclude further that electrical energy has an important meaning in life
reactions, that the knowledge of its role can be furthered only through a
long series of special undertakings.
The application of silent discharge is especially proper for such
undertakings on physical and chemical grounds. On physical grounds, while
under avoidance of higher temperature, the electrical energy unites with
ultraviolet ray exposure, especially as Warburg has shown previously. On
chemical grounds relatively strong chemical effects are experienced
And now to come to my own investigations, I wish to mention from the
earlier preparation of biologically important processes:
1. The assimilation of carbonic acid (H2CO3) higher than formaldehyde up
to glykolaldehyde from damp carbonic acid.
2. The synthesis of fatty acids that are brought up by the assimilation
of carbonic acid.
3. The synthesis of glycine from carbonic acid (H2CO3), water and ammonia
from the intervening steps of formamids, a reaction that can be the first
phase of nitrogen fixation on the way to protein.
4. The hydrolyzing of starch.
5. The deamination of glycine.
Walther Loeb, and others in his time, noted that they often found polymers
of various kinds in their discharge chambers, just as did Stanley Miller
and others many years later. Loeb reported in 1909 that he had frequently
smelled the unpleasant and characteristic odor of butyric acid during
investigations of the behavior of nitrogen in the presence of simple
organic compounds under the influence of the silent discharge. He thought
that the connection of the silent discharge reaction might be related to
Miller has never given up the "primeval soup" although the atmosphere of
the early earth is now known not to have been reducing. J. Mol. Evol. v39
pp546-554 (1992) Also greater detail in "Major Events in the history of
life" ed J. William Schopf, Jones and Bartlett (1992) Chapter 1 The
Prebiotic Synthesis of Organic Compounds as a Step toward the Origin of
Life. "The environment of the primitive earth is thought to have been more
or less reducing; under these conditions experimental studies have
established that organic compounds would have been synthesized on a large
The last paper I have by Lazcano and Miller Journal of Molecular Evolution
v39 pp546-554 (1994) acknowledges the sterilizing action of impacts from
the late bombardment. "Late accretion effects may have killed off life on
our planet as late as 3.8 billion years ago." L & M call a 10^-4 M
solution of glycine a "rich prebiotic soup". L & M, not really intending
to write comedy, have many other bloopers in that paper. l recommend
everyone to read it.
For further comment and references on the non existence of a primeval soup
in the oceans on the early Earth see BioEssays v 85-88 (1995) and Journal
of Theoretical Biology v176 349-355 (1995).
Walther Loeb died after a brief illness on 3 February 1916, at the age of
44. The essence of all so-called spark discharge work on the origin of
life had been done by Loeb and others by 1916. I hope this posting will
help to recognize Walther Loeb's priority in the stillen elektrische
Entladung, silent electrical discharge.
Best regards Hubert P. Yockey
Einstein: "God does not play craps with the world."
Bohr: "Einstein, stop telling God what to do!"
The gods actually did cast lots for the world as Homer tells us (Illiad )
See comment on page 88 of Information Theory and Molecular Biology
Cambridge University Press (1992)