RogerBW's Blog

The Chemical History of a Candle, Michael Faraday 16 May 2016

1861 non-fiction, popular science, transcriptions of early Royal Institution Christmas Lectures; Faraday starts from the basics of combustion and goes on to the frontiers of nineteenth-century chemistry.

It's not clear just when these lectures were first given; Faraday started the series in 1825, but came back several times thereafter. 1861 seems to have been the first time they were published. I'm not sufficiently familiar with the detailed development of chemistry during that interval to place them any more precisely, but this seems like pretty cutting-edge stuff for an era when Dalton's atomic theory was still a subject of debate.

The language is at times a problem: not just archaic terminology like "sulphuret of lead" where we'd now talk of lead (II) sulphide, but "combustion" used (as far as I can tell) to describe not only oxidative processes but thermal luminescence. And there's no systematisation of reduction/oxidation: the principles are clearly there, and are being demonstrated, but the overall concept and terminology haven't quite been grasped yet. This, to me, is the most fascinating part: a snapshot of chemistry at a time when it was changing really quite fast.

The modern reader will probably be dispirited by the change in the culture of safety: it is assumed that the audience will be able at home to melt zinc filings into a hot crucible, prepare hydrogen from zinc and sulphuric acid, burn phosphorus in air enriched with oxygen, and so on. Of course they will! How else can they learn, if not by doing?

our battery is so beautifully active that we are even boiling the mercury, and getting all things right--not wrong, but vigorously right

(And yes, the voltaic battery and electric lamp are introduced with the sort of awe that in my youth was given to CT scanners.)

I suspect that these lectures aren't very informative unless one's already mildly familiar with oxidative chemistry, or at least prepared to dig around in Wikipedia and learn a bit. But they do carry the sense of wonder at the processes of the world which is vital for the spirit of enquiry, and for that reason alone they're probably worth reading.

Freely available from Wikisource. Read an illustrated edition such as this rather than the plain text.

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