Incited by Frederick Winsor, who had been promoting the foundation of a company for the introduction of gas lighting in London, Accum became involved in the topic of gas lighting himself. At the behest of the Gas Light and Coke Company, he carried out many experiments on this subject and in 1812 became a member of the board of the same company. The use of gas lighting in both private and public contexts spread through the establishment of the first large scale gas plant, in whose design Accum had been instrumental.
His publications, most of which were written in English, are in a style accessible to the general public of the period. Accum in this way made important contributions to the popularization of chemistry in the period. In 1820, Accum published Treatise on Adulteration of Food, in which he denounced the use of poisoned foodstuffs. The work marked the beginning of a concern with nutrition. Accum was the first person to tackle the subject and to reach a wide audience with his work. Although his book sold extremely well, his attempts to raise public awareness in these areas made him many enemies among London foodstuff purveyors. Accum left England after a lawsuit was brought against him. He lived out the rest of his life as a teacher at an industrial institution in Berlin.
Accum was born in Bückeburg, Schaumburg-Lippe, Vlotho an der Weser, and had been in an infantry regiment in the service of Count Wilhelm von Schaumburg-Lippe. In 1755, Accum's father converted from Judaism to Protestant Christianity. Soon after, he married Judith Berth La Mottein in Bückeburg. His wife was the daughter of a hat maker who was part of the French community in Berlin, and the granddaughter of a refugee of the Hugenot persecutions in France.
With his baptism, Accum changed his name from Markus Herz to Christian Accum. In addition to choosing the name "Christian", which means "follower of Christ", Accum's father chose to emphasize his conversion by adopting the surname Accum, which was derived from the Hebrew word "Akum", meaning "not-Jewish". It is not known whether he did this on his own initiative or because of pressure from his fiancee's family. In any case, after his marriage, Christian Accum became an independent shopkeeper and soap-maker, based at first at the house of his inlaws' in Bückeburg at 141 Schulstraße. He received citizenship in the city nine years after his marriage. On May 9, 1772, three years after Accum's birth, his father Christian Accum died, at the age of 45.
Friedrich Accum attended the Bückeburg Gymnasium Adolfinum and also received private tutelage in French and English. After his schooling, he finished an apprenticeship as an apothecary with the Brande family in Hanover, who were friends of the Accums. The Brands also had a branch office in London and were the apothecaries to the Hanoverian King of England, George III. London, as an important centre of scientific work at the end of the 18th century, was to be very attractive for young, scientifically inclined people from all over Europe. Friedrich Accum went there in 1793 and worked as an assistant in the Brande apothecary in Arlington Street.
In the fall of 1799, a translation of Franz Carl Achard's ground-breaking work on the production of sugar from beets appeared in Nicholson’s Journal. Up until then, sugar cane which was grown overseas was the only plant from which sugar could be made. As this made possible the creation of a domestic sugar industry, it was greeted with great interest. A short time after the article's publication, Accum had samples of sugar beet sent from Berlin, and presented them to William Nicholson. They were the first sugar beets to arrive in England, and Nicholson published a detailed report of his investigations in the January edition of his journal, in which he established that sugar from beets was as good in taste as sugar from sugarcane.
Mr Accum acquaints the Patrons and Amateurs of Chemistry that he continues to give private Courses of Lectures on Operative and Philosophical Chemistry, Practical Pharmacy and the Art of Analysis, as well as to take Resident Pupils in his House, and that he keeps constantly on sale in as pure a state as possible, all the Re-Agents and Articles of Research made use of in Experimental Chemistry, together with a complete Collection of Chemical Apparatus and Instruments calculated to Suit the conveniences of Different Purchasers.
Accum distributed a catalog of his wares from his Old Compton Street store and also sent it to other cities in England and abroad when requested.
Accum's laboratory in Old Compton Street was for many years the only institution in England in which, in addition to theoretical lectures on chemistry, training in laboratory practice was also provided. Accum's teaching attracted, at least in part, a prominent audience. His listeners included the well-known London politician and later prime minister Lord Palmerston, the Duke of Bedford, and the Duke of Northumberland. In addition, Accums' laboratory was the first in Europe to be visited by students and scientists from the United States, among which were Benjamin Silliman and William Dandridge Peck. When Silliman later became Professor of chemistry at Yale College (precursor to Yale University) in New Haven, he ordered his first laboratory equipment from Accum in London. Accum's biographer, Charles Albert Browne, surmised in his 1925 work that some of the older American colleges still have sales receipts from Accum's London business.
With the development of new laboratory apparatus, Accum positioned himself in mid-market with respect to cost and usability. Amateurs could also perform simple chemical investigations in his establishment. Accum developed portable laboratory kits, intended for farmers, for the analysis of soils and stones. For prices ranging from three to eighty pounds sterling, these chests were the first truly portable laboratories.
Up to 1803, Accum published a series of articles in Nicholson’s Journal, which spanned a wide array of subjects: from investigating the possibility of determining the purity of medicines, to the existence of benzoic acids in vanilla extract, to observations about the explosivity of sulphur-phosphorus mixtures. Of far greater significance was the 1803 publication of his System of Theoretical and Practical Chemistry. Cole, Accum's biographer, states that "it was the first text-book of general chemistry written in the English language to be based on Lavoisier's new principles; it is outstanding, also, in that it is written in a popular style, the subject matter being graduated as with a modern text-book.
Accum held his first lecture on chemistry and mineralogy in a small room in his house on Old Compton Street. His audience, however, grew so rapidly that he soon had to rent the Medical Theatre in Cork Street. Such was the interest among Londoners for Accum’s lectures that, after his resignation from the Royal Institution, he took a position at the Surrey Institution on Blackfriars Road. An advertisement in The Times on January 6, 1809 indicates that Accum offered a course on mineralogy and the chemical analysis of metals every Wednesday evening.
His increasing interest in mineralogy at this time is also apparent from the titles of two books which he authored between 1803 and 1809. The first was a two volume work which appeared in 1804 entitled A Practical Essay on the Analysis of Minerals and was subsequently reissued in 1808 as A Manual of Analytical Mineralogy. In 1809 he published Analysis of a Course of Lectures on Mineralogy. While at the Surrey Institution, Accum also published, beginning in 1808, a series of articles on the chemical properties and composition of mineral water in Alexander Tilloch's Philosophical Journal.
In 1811, when the Parisian saltpetre manufacturer Bernard Courtois made iodine for the first time from the kelp ash, his discovery was greeted with great interest by experts. Accum was among the first chemists in England to undertake experiments to isolate iodine. In two articles published in Tilloch's Philosophical Journal in January and February 1814, Accum described the iodine content of different kinds of seaweed and gave a detailed account of a process which could be used for iodine production.
The production of gases from coal had been observed by Henry Clayton in a letter to Robert Boyle in the 17th century. The letter was only published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1739. Clayton wrote:
I then got some Coal from one of the Pits nearest thereunto, which I distilled in a Retort in an open Fire. At first there came over only Phlegm, afterwards a black Oil, and then likewise a Spirit arose, which I could noways condense, but it forced my Lute, or broke my Glasses. Once, when it had forced the Lute, coming close thereto, in order to try to repair it, I observed that the Spirit which issued out caught Fire at the Flame of the Candle, and continued burning with Violence as it issued out, in a Stream, which 1 blew out, and lighted again, alternately, for several times.
This sort of knowledge did not, however, find any practical application until the end of the 18th century. The gas produced during the coking of coal was allowed to escape unused until William Murdock began to promote coal gas as an illuminant. Other such experiments had been done by, for example, George Dixon in 1780 in Cockfield, Jean-Pierre Minckelers in 1785 in Louvain, Archibald Cochrane in 1787 at his estate Culross Abbey, but these were all limited in extent. The true prototype for later gasworks was first constructed in 1802 at the Soho Foundry and in 1805 at George Lee's cotton mill in Salford close to Manchester. However, the skepticism faced by the new technology was great. As late as 1810 Murdock was asked in a committee of the House of Commons: "Do you mean to tell us that it will be possible to have a light without a wick? It took until the second decade of the 19th century before gaslight spread from industrial mills to urban street lighting and domestic lighting. Accum played a crucial role in this development.
Accum became involved with the production of gas for lighting purposes through the efforts of Friedrich Albert Winsor (1763–1830), another German émigré, who had been waging a multiyear publicity campaign. In 1809 Accum was called before a Parliamentary committee looking into granting a charter for a gaslight company Winsor had been promoting. While unsuccessful in its first attempt, the bill passed in 1810 and the company was incorporated under the name "Gas Light and Coke Company". The company met the conditions laid out in the bill and began operating in 1812 with Accum as a member of the board. Accum directed the construction of a gas plant on Curtain Road, which was the first such plant in the history of gaslight. From then on, gaslight was no longer limited to industrial mills and was introduced into urban life. Westminster Bridge was lighted with gas lamps in 1813, and a year later, streets in Westminster itself. In 1815, Accum published "Description of the Process of Manufacturing Coal-Gas". In the introduction, Accum compared the newly formed gas utility with the water companies that had been operating in London since the early 18th century: "Through gas, it will be possible to have light in all rooms, as is presently the case with water." When this book was translated into German in Berlin in 1815, an explanatory note had to be added, as no such water utilities existed there: "There are many private homes in England which are provided with pipes in the walls so that in almost all rooms, all one needs to do to get water is open a faucet.
In London in 1814 there was a single gasometer of , but by 1822, there were already four gas companies, whose gasometers had a total combined volume of almost a million ft3 In order to keep the mains as short as possible the gas plants were set up in the city districts where the gas was consumed. The incursion of chemical plants of this sort into inhabited parts of the city provoked public criticism of the new technology. These were especially fierce once explosions occurred and were also directed towards poisonous effluent from plants. Accum, who by this point was a leading proponent of gaslight in addition to his work as a chemist, strongly refuted these criticisms in his own writings. Through careful analysis he showed that on the whole, accidents were caused by carelessness rather than problems with the technology, and were avoidable.
Accum had from an early time been concerned with the byproducts of coal gas production, which included tar and sulphur compounds. These were typically buried or dumped into nearby watercourses. The ammonium and sulphur compounds were especially damaging to the environment. In 1820 Accum began demanding legislative intervention to prevent the unmitigated disposal of these byproducts. There was, however, relatively little political movement in response as gas explosions of various sizes drew far more attention than long term environmental degradation from poisonous byproducts of gas production.
A thousands copies of A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons were sold within a month of its publication. A second run was printed in the same year, and a German translation was printed in Leipzig two years later. The book's cover shows that Accum was capable of using dramatic imagery to try to draw attention to his scientific knowledge. It featured a rectangular frame supporting a spider's web and surrounded by intertwined snakes. A spider lurks in the middle of the web over its prey, and a skull crowns the entire collection with a caption beneath it, taken from the Old Testament: "There is death in the pot.
The various chapters of the book alternate between harmless forgeries such as mixing dried pea grounds in coffee, and much more dangerous contamination by truly poisonous substances. Accum explained to his readers that there was a high lead content in Spanish olive oil, caused by the lead containers used to clear the oil, and recommended using oil from other countries such as France and Italy, where this was not practiced. He warned against bright green sweets sold by itinerant merchants in the streets of London as the colour was produced with "sapgreen", a colorant with high copper content. "Vinegar", he explained to his readers, "was frequently mixed with sulphuric acid in order to increase its acidity.
Accum paid particular attention to beer, introducing the subject with the comment: "Malt beverages, and especially port, the preferred drink of the inhabitants of London and other large cities, is among the items which is most frequently adulterated in the course of supply. He claimed that English beer was occasionally mixed with molasses, honey, vitriol, pepper and even opium. Among the most shocking customs he pointed out was the practice of adding fishberries, part of the Menispermaceae family, to port. It became evident during the French Revolutionary Wars that the practice was getting out of hand, and Accum attributed the intoxicating power of the drink to the addition of this plant matter. Accum used various sources to substantiate his claims. As evidence for his claims about Cocculus indicus he used, among others, import statistics, which he complemented with observations about when the price of Cocculus indicus from commodity price lists of brewing materials merchants increased. He also looked at historic price trends for the same commodities.
The Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons has two further notable characteristics. First, like Accum's earlier writings, it was written with descriptions of the simple techniques of analytical chemistry he employed, thereby making them more accessible to his readers. He wanted to make every test repeatable in the simplest possible way by a non-expert. Accum wrote in the foreword to his first edition:
In stating the experimental proceedings necessary for the detection of the frauds which it has been my object to expose, I have confined myself to the task of pointing out such operations only as may be performed by persons unacquainted with chemical science ; and it has been my purpose to express all necessary rules and instructions in the plainest language, divested of those recondite terms of science, which would be out of place in a work intended for general perusal.
The second characteristic was that Accum did not limit his campaign to simply exposing problems. At the end of every chapter, he included names of merchants of who had in years prior to 1820 been caught adulterating foodstuffs. In this way, Accum tried to deprive them of business and thereby had an effect on the London economy.
Accum was well aware before the publication of his book that mentioning specific names from London's business world would provoke a resistance and a possibly a severe reaction. In the foreword to the first edition he called the publication of the names of those adulterating foodstuffs an "invidious office" and a "painful duty which he undertook as a verification for his statements. Although he further stated that he "carefully avoided citing any, except those which are authenticated in Parliamentary documents and other records, this did not save him from drawing the ire of his opponents. By the time the second edition appeared, he mentioned in the foreword that he had received threats. At the same time, this did not stop him from putting "the unwary on their guard" against the deceits of unscrupulous men. He further added that he wished to notify his hidden enemies that in the text he would proceed to report for posterity those crimes which these swindlers and their base associates had been found guilty of in public justice. That is, of having made poisonous the basic foodstuffs.
The process which ultimately led to Accum's departure from England and his return to Germany began a few months after the publication of his book on the poisoning of foodstuffs. For a long time, many contradictory accounts have been given of the exact circumstances of his exile. Finally in 1951, Cole, in an addendum to the minutes of Royal Institution, proved that the presentation of the events adopted in the article in the Dictionary of National Biography, and also later in the Allgemeinen Deutschen Biographie (according to which Accum was embroiled in charges of embezzlement as librarian of the Royal Institution and escaped to Germany), did not correspond to the facts.
Cole completely reprinted the minutes of an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Institution of December 23, 1820, which show that these events were initiated through an observation made by a librarian of the Royal Institution named Sturt. Sturt reported to his superiors that on November 5, 1820, a number of pages were removed from books in the reading room of the institution, books which Accum had read. On the instructions of his superiors, Sturt cut a small hole in the wall of the reading room to watch Accum from an adjoining room. On the evening of December 20th, as recorded in the minutes, Sturt could see Accum tear out and walk off with a paper concerning the ingredients and uses of chocolate. The paper had been in an issue of Nicholson’s Journal. Accum's premises on Old Compton Street were searched on the order of a magistrate for the City of London, and torn pages were indeed discovered there. These could be matched to books belonging to the Royal Institution.
The Magistrate after hearing the whole of the Case observed that however valuable the books might be from which the leaves found in Mr Accum’s house had been taken, yet the leaves separated from them were only waste paper. If they had weighed a pound he would have committed him for the value of a pound of waste paper, but this not being the case he discharged him.
The Royal Institution committee that met on December 23, 1820 was not, however, satified with this judgment, and decided to take further legal action against Accum. On January 10, 1821, an open letter directed to Earl Spencer, the president of the Institution, appeared in The Times defending Accum. The letter was signed "A.C", and Cole supposed that the author was the surgeon Anthony Carlisle, who had been friends with Accum since the first years of the latter's stay in London. This unsought support availed Accum little, as the minutes of the Royal Institution from April 16, 1821 show. These report the commencement of a lawsuit against Accum for theft of paper valued at 14 pence. Two of his friends were included in the indictment: the publisher Rudolph Ackermann and the architect John Papworth. These three appeared in court and paid altogether 400 pounds sterling as surety. Accum did not make an appearance at the court session. He had fled England and returned to Germany.
Immediately upon his arrival in Germany, Accum went to the town of Althaldensleben. There, the industrialist Johann Gottlob Nathusius had acquired various estates and was using them to found a sprawling industrial settlement. Nathusius was a German pioneer in the field of sugar production from beets, and had established a factory for its production in that town between 1813 and 1816. It was probably Nathusius’ extensive library and chemical laboratory that drew Accum. He remained only a short time in Althaldensleben, however, as he soon got a professorship at the Gewerbeinstitut and the Bauakademie in Berlin. His teaching in the areas of physics, chemistry, and mineralogy, were collected in the two volume work, Physische und chemische Beschaffenheit der Baumaterialien, deren Wahl, Verhalten und zweckmässige Anwendung, published in Berlin in 1826. It was the only work Accum published originally in German.
A few years after settling down in Berlin, Accum had a notable house built at 16 Marienstraße (later 21 Marienstraße), where he dwelt until his death. During his last years, he suffered from a bad case of gout
Probably the best known pictorial representation of Accum was an engraving by James Thomson made in July 1820 for the English journal European Magazine. It shows Accum sitting at a table close to a gas lamp. Thomson's engraving was probably based on an oil painting by the London portrait painter Samuel Drummond (1765–1844), who had shown Accum in a similar pose in a painting produced a few years prior to this. In addition, Accum's brother-in-law, the artist Wilhelm Strack, painted an oil portrait which shows Accum as a young man.
A few letter fragments and documents relating to Accum still exist in his family's possession. A certificate from the Gesellschaft naturforschender Freunde (society of natural philosophical friends), based in Berlin and granting honorary membership to Accum, dated November 1, 1814, was made available online in 2006. A letter from Accum written in London and addressed to his brother Philipp in Bückeburg, about life in London after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, is also available online at Wikisource.