A German 19th-century physicist and chemist who in 1833 discovered creosote carbolic acid by distillation from wood-tar. Baron Karl von Reichenbach, like his contemporaries Joseph Priestley in England and Alessandro Volta in Italy, was interested in the process known as destructive distillation the reducing of an element to its basic components, usually by means of heat. Reichenbach applied destructive distillation to wood and wood products. In 1830 he discovered that some woods, when distilled, produced a flammable waxy substance that he called paraffin (now known as paraffin wax). In 1832, he found that the wood of the beech tree, when distilled, produced a slightly yellowish liquid that burned easily and gave off a strong smell. Further experimentation led Reichenbach to discover that the liquid, which he named Kreosot (creosote), could function as a preservative for other wooden products, keeping them safe from attack by wood-eating insects.
Creosote and paraffin quickly became important during the Industrial Revolution then taking place in Europe. Paraffin wax was cheaper than beeswax and could easily be made into candles. Like wax, too, it could be used to treat cloth in order to make it waterproof. In addition to its preservative qualities, creosote proved to be a fine antiseptic, and, as medical knowledge improved throughout the 19th century, creosote came into wide use as a means of preventing infections in hospitals, particularly in surgical procedures.