Although not a Leuven Local Heroe, but still a Belgian Local Heroe who deserves a dedicated internet site:

Johannes Baptista Van Helmont

Johannes Baptista Van Helmont was born on January 12, 1579 as stated in the baptism records of the Parish of Saint Goedele in Brussels. He was the youngest in a family of three girls and two boys. His parents were Christiaen Van Helmont and Maria Stassaert who got married on January 28, 1567 in the Church of Saint Goedele.

J.B. Van Helmont had a turbulent student life at Leuven. He started out as a student in humanities until 1594 but did not graduate. He continued with studies on philosophy at the Jesuit's school, and after some years of travel abroad, he eventually graduated in 1609 with a doctoral degree in medicine. He married Marguerite Van Ranst in the same year (no marriage license has been found). They lived in Vilvoorde (a city near Brussels) and had six children. Some biographies mention seven children and some mention that two of their sons died of the plague, but this could not be verified with official records. Through the heiress of his wife, his marriage provided him with the necessary funds to enable him to retire and dedicate himself to research 'night and day', as he is remembered to have said. J.B. Van Helmont died in Vilvoorde on December 30, 1644 (again no official record exists). His work is described in a book, named "Ortus Medicinae" that was edited by his son, Franciscus Mercurius Van Helmont, a man of own merit. The first edition of the book was published posthumously in 1648.

J.B. Van Helmont is credited for running the first scientific experiments on chemistry and thereby initiating the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry. He used a pendulum for measuring time, a balance for measuring mass and a thermometer for systematic recording of experimental results, and he was concerned about the accuracy and repeatability of his measurements. He was the first to create an interest in the scientific study of gases (i.e. pneumatic chemistry), and his work was referenced by Robert Boyle. In the history of chemistry, he is praised as the discoverer of gases.

Within thermal sciences and engineering, he studied the pyrolysis and combustion of wood in a closed vessel and noticed that the gaseous products were different from air. He was the first to realize that the gasification products must hold a mass and, moreover, equal to the weight loss of the wood. He described these products as Spiritus Sylvestrus (wild spirit) and he named them GAS (Hunc spiritum, incognitum hactenus, novo nomine Gas voco, ...).

Many discussions on the origin of the word 'gas' have appeared in the literature. Some scholars have claimed that the word 'gas' is derived either from the greek word 'chaos' or from the german word 'gaesen' (ghosts). As these concepts were described by Paracelcus prior to the work of Van Helmont, these scholars generally try to diminish the originality of Van Helmont's work in favor of that of Paracelcus. As has been justifiably emphasised by true Van Helmont scholars such as Walter Pagel, a german medicine professor, and Professor J.R. Partington, a professor in Chemistry in London, we may never know the true origin of the word 'gas'. However, what we do know for sure is that the discovery of the concept of gases is Van Helmont's original contribution to modern sciences.

Van Helmont was more or less the last in a line of famous Flemish scientists. In the years prior to his live, Flanders was a wealthy region that gave birth to a number of great scientists: Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564); Rembertus Dodoens (1517-1585); Gerard Mercator (1512-1594); Christoffel Plantijn (1514-1589). Erasmus was lecturing at the University of Leuven in the first quarter of the 16th century. However, the inquisition, installed by Charles V and continued by his son Philips (Felipe) II, drove many educated people (e.g. Simon Stevin) north to Holland, and the continuing wars between Spain, Holland, France and England did take away all of the prospects for further scientific and technological developments in Flanders.

Ref. "Joan Baptista Van Helmont". J.R. Partington Annals of Science, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 359-384, 1936. and many other internet sites, such as "The Catholic Encyclopedia."

Ferdinand Verbiest

File still under construction (expect a first release by November 1, 99).

On the left is a photo of the Turbina di Verbiest, a miniature replica steam car that is built by the Brumm company of Italy. The miniature is modelled after an original small steam turbine car that was built in the late 18th century (presumably 1775) by a German mechanic. Unfortunately, it must be assumed that this original was lost during a bombing raid on the Technische Hochschule Karlsruhe during the World War II. However, a photo of the original car can be seen at the Deutsches Museum. As is reported by Horst O. Hardenberg, this steam turbine car operated on the same principle as Verbiest's carriage (the impulse turbine), but used a more modern arrangement of the drive train.

Ref. "Ferdinand Verbiest's Steam Turbine-Powered Vehicle Model". Horst O. Hardenberg, SAE SP-1102 publication and many internet sites, such as "The Catholic Encyclopedia."

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