A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter II
The beginnings of modern chemistry
Henry Cavendish
This work of Black's was followed by the equally important work of his former pupil, Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), whose discovery of the composition of many substances, notably of nitric acid and of water, was of great importance, adding another link to the important chain of evidence against the phlogiston theory. Cavendish is one of the most eccentric figures in the history of science, being widely known in his own time for his immense wealth and brilliant intellect, and also for his peculiarities and his morbid sensibility, which made him dread society, and probably did much in determining his career. Fortunately for him, and incidentally for the cause of science, he was able to pursue laboratory investigations without being obliged to mingle with his dreaded fellow-mortals, his every want being provided for by the immense fortune inherited from his father and an uncle.

When a young man, as a pupil of Dr. Black, he had become imbued with the enthusiasm of his teacher, continuing Black's investigations as to the properties of carbonic-acid gas when free and in combination. One of his first investigations was reported in 1766, when he communicated to the Royal Society his experiments for ascertaining the properties of carbonic-acid and hydrogen gas, in which he first showed the possibility of weighing permanently elastic fluids, although Torricelli had before this shown the relative weights of a column of air and a column of mercury. Other important experiments were continued by Cavendish, and in 1784 he announced his discovery of the composition of water, thus robbing it of its time-honored position as an "element." But his claim to priority in this discovery was at once disputed by his fellow-countryman James Watt and by the Frenchman Lavoisier. Lavoisier's claim was soon disallowed even by his own countrymen, but for many years a bitter controversy was carried on by the partisans of Watt and Cavendish. The two principals, however, seem. never to have entered into this controversy with anything like the same ardor as some of their successors, as they remained on the best of terms.[1] It is certain, at any rate, that Cavendish announced his discovery officially before Watt claimed that the announcement had been previously made by him, "and, whether right or wrong, the honor of scientific discoveries seems to be accorded naturally to the man who first publishes a demonstration of his discovery." Englishmen very generally admit the justness of Cavendish's claim, although the French scientist Arago, after reviewing the evidence carefully in 1833, decided in favor of Watt.

It appears that something like a year before Cavendish made known his complete demonstration of the composition of water, Watt communicated to the Royal Society a suggestion that water was composed of "dephlogisticated air (oxygen) and phlogiston (hydrogen) deprived of part of its latent heat." Cavendish knew of the suggestion, but in his experiments refuted the idea that the hydrogen lost any of its latent heat. Furthermore, Watt merely suggested the possible composition without proving it, although his idea was practically correct, if we can rightly interpret the vagaries of the nomenclature then in use. But had Watt taken the steps to demonstrate his theory, the great "Water Controversy" would have been avoided. Cavendish's report of his discovery to the Royal Society covers something like forty pages of printed matter. In this he shows how, by passing an electric spark through a closed jar containing a mixture of hydrogen gas and oxygen, water is invariably formed, apparently by the union of the two gases. The experiment was first tried with hydrogen and common air, the oxygen of the air uniting with the hydrogen to form water, leaving the nitrogen of the air still to be accounted for. With pure oxygen and hydrogen, however, Cavendish found that pure water was formed, leaving slight traces of any other, substance which might not be interpreted as being Chemical impurities. There was only one possible explanation of this phenomenon - that hydrogen and oxygen, when combined, form water.

"By experiments with the globe it appeared," wrote Cavendish, "that when inflammable and common air are exploded in a proper proportion, almost all the inflammable air, and near one-fifth the common air, lose their elasticity and are condensed into dew. And by this experiment it appears that this dew is plain water, and consequently that almost all the inflammable air is turned into pure water.

"In order to examine the nature of the matter condensed on firing a mixture of dephlogisticated and inflammable air, I took a glass globe, holding 8800 grain measures, furnished with a brass cock and an apparatus for firing by electricity. This globe was well exhausted by an air-pump, and then filled with a mixture of inflammable and dephlogisticated air by shutting the cock, fastening the bent glass tube into its mouth, and letting up the end of it into a glass jar inverted into water and containing a mixture of 19,500 grain measures of dephlogisticated air, and 37,000 of inflammable air; so that, upon opening the cock, some of this mixed air rushed through the bent tube and filled the globe. The cock was then shut and the included air fired by electricity, by means of which almost all of it lost its elasticity (was condensed into water vapors). The cock was then again opened so as to let in more of the same air to supply the place of that destroyed by the explosion, which was again fired, and the operation continued till almost the whole of the mixture was let into the globe and exploded. By this means, though the globe held not more than a sixth part of the mixture, almost the whole of it was exploded therein without any fresh exhaustion of the globe."

At first this condensed matter was "acid to the taste and contained two grains of nitre," but Cavendish, suspecting that this was due to impurities, tried another experiment that proved conclusively that his opinions were correct. "I therefore made another experiment," he says, "with some more of the same air from plants in which the proportion of inflammable air was greater, so that the burnt air was almost completely phlogisticated, its standard being one-tenth. The condensed liquor was then not at all acid, but seemed pure water."

From these experiments he concludes "that when a mixture of inflammable and dephlogisticated air is exploded, in such proportions that the burnt air is not much phlogisticated, the condensed liquor contains a little acid which is always of the nitrous kind, whatever substance the dephlogisticated air is procured from; but if the proportion be such that the burnt air is almost entirely phlogisticated, the condensed liquor is not at all acid, but seems pure water, without any addition whatever."[2]

These same experiments, which were undertaken to discover the composition of water, led him to discover also the composition of nitric acid. He had observed that, in the combustion of hydrogen gas with common air, the water was slightly tinged with acid, but that this was not the case when pure oxygen gas was used. Acting upon this observation, he devised an experiment to determine the nature of this acid. He constructed an apparatus whereby an electric spark was passed through a vessel containing common air. After this process had been carried on for several weeks a small amount of liquid was formed. This liquid combined with a solution of potash to form common nitre, which "detonated with charcoal, sparkled when paper impregnated with it was burned, and gave out nitrous fumes when sulphuric acid was poured on it." In other words, the liquid was shown to be nitric acid. Now, since nothing but pure air had been used in the initial experiment, and since air is composed of nitrogen and oxygen, there seemed no room to doubt that nitric acid is a combination of nitrogen and oxygen.

This discovery of the nature of nitric acid seems to have been about the last work of importance that Cavendish did in the field of chemistry, although almost to the hour of his death he was constantly occupied with scientific observations. Even in the last moments of his life this habit asserted itself, according to Lord Brougham. "He died on March 10, 1810, after a short illness, probably the first, as well as the last, which he ever suffered. His habit of curious observation continued to the end. He was desirous of marking the progress of the disease and the gradual extinction of the vital powers. With these ends in view, that he might not be disturbed, he desired to be left alone. His servant, returning sooner than he had wished, was ordered again to leave the chamber of death, and when be came back a second time he found his master had expired.[3]





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.