Ether is the common name of the organic compound whose chemical formula is CH3CH2OCH2CH3. Diethyl ether, as it is also known, is a very flammable liquid with a sweet smell. Ether has been prepared by reacting ethyl alcohol with strong acid, since the thirteenth century. Its properties were well known but its chemical structure was not determined until 1851 by Alexander William Williamson (1824-1904).
Ether was first used as an anesthetic to kill pain by W. T. G. Morton (1819-1868), a Boston dentist. Morton had learned about ether from a chemist named Charles T. Jackson (1805-1880). Eventually Morton convinced Dr. J. C. Warren (1778-1856) to let him use ether as an anesthetic on one of his patients. In Massachusetts General Hospital on October 16, 1846, Morton put a Mr. Abbott to sleep with ether, then called out, "Dr. Warren, your patient is now ready." The patient was asleep and relaxed. From this date on, ether became the most widely used anesthetic. It was eventually replaced, in about 1956, with newer anesthetics that are not flammable and have some more beneficial properties.
Ethyl ether has many uses in the chemical industry. It is an excellent solvent and is used for dissolving various waxes, fats, oils, and gums. Ether is an inert compound that is often used as the reaction medium for chemical reactions between very reactive species. When ether is mixed with ethanol the resulting solution has special solvent properties that are used to dissolve nitrocellulose the principal component in the manufacture of the explosive, guncotton. This solvent mixture is also used in the preparation of plastics and membranes. Ether can be purchased in aerosol cans to be used as a starting fluid for automobile engines.
See also Anesthesia.