Ernest Solvay, chemist and great benefactor of his time
Ernest Solvay became passionately interested in physics, chemistry and natural history at an early age. He was prevented from attending university by illness, and at the age of 21 started work in the gas factory owned by his uncle. During an experiment, he discovered a revolutionary process for producing caustic soda. In 1861, he first patented an economic method of his invention for producing sodium carbonate, which was very rare in its natural state, an ammonia process for the industrial production of sodium carbonate from sodium chloride and limestone, now known as the Solvay process.
In 1863, Ernest Solvay founded his first factory and launched his "chemical empire". The Société Solvay & Cie gradually expanded internationally and became one of the giants of the chemical industry; at the end of the 19th century, Société Solvay became a global benchmark for the chemical industry.
Ernest Solvay also took social initiatives; he introduced a social security system into his factories, thus becoming a pioneer of social legislation. In doing so, he created the outlines of a social structure based on the organisation of the labour market, equal opportunities and State involvement. He continued to fight for workers' rights at the Senate, before being appointed Minister of State in 1918. He also created a number of social bodies, such as the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (National Relief and Food Committee).
He also sponsored the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels), where he funded the Institut de Physiologie (1895), the Institut de Sociologie (1894) and the Ecole de commerce Solvay (Business School) (1903). He supported and promoted the sciences by creating the Institut international pour la physique et la chimie (International Institute for Physics and Chemistry) in Brussels. He created a scientific centre to house these institutes, which can still be seen in the Parc Léopold. It is also here that the Solvay Councils are held every three years; during these meetings some twenty specialists discuss a current topic prepared by eminent rapporteurs.
The Solvay Group current employs almost 30,000 people and has more than 400 establishments in 50 countries.