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Lavoisier’s "Reflections on phlogiston" I: against phlogiston theory

Abstract

This seminal paper, which marks a turning point of the chemical revolution, is presented for the first time in a complete English translation. In this first half Lavoisier undermines phlogiston chemistry by arguing that his French contemporaries (particularly P.-J. Macquer and Baumé) had replaced Stahl’s original theory with radically different systems that conceptualised the phlogiston principle in completely incompatible ways. He refutes their claims by showing that these later models were riddled with inconsistencies as to phlogiston’s weight, its ability to penetrate glass and its role as a source of colour and odour in chemical compounds.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Taken in isolation, the first half might lend itself to a triumphalist interpretation whereby Lavoisier demonstrates that phlogiston does not exist by a type of reductio ad absurdum (Chang 2009). However, these negative arguments should not be read without remembering Lavoisier’s positive claims—that a caloric-like fluid plays as large a role in combustion as oxygen. With this in mind, it would be wise to give a more literal reading to Lavoisier’s accusation that ‘the same name has been given to very different things’, which he makes repeatedly throughout the first half.

  2. 2.

    As: Réflexions sur le phlogistique, pour servir de suite à la théorie de la combustion et de la calcination, publiée en 1777. Mém. Acad. R. Sci. Paris année 1783, pp. 505–538 (1786), republished in: Dumas, J.-B. (ed.) Œuvres de Lavoisier, vol. II, pp. 623–655. Imprimerie Impériale, Paris (1862).

  3. 3.

    N.B. although the terms “pure air” and “vital air” refer to the gas we now call “oxygen” and consider an element, for Lavoisier, “the oxygen principle” is just one component of that gas, along with the matter of heat.

  4. 4.

    The 2–3-year lag between reading an essay at the Academy and it coming out in print makes it difficult to pinpoint when Lavoisier changed his preferred nomenclature. Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau’s 1787 Method of Chemical Nomenclature spells it oxigène and the 1788 English translation of that work spells it “oxygen”. In a paper published in 1788 (read to the Academy in 1786) Lavoisier first spelt it oxygène, the modern French way (Réflexions sur la décomposition de l'eau par les substances végétales et animales. In: Dumas (ed.) Œuvres de Lavoisier, vol. II, pp. 656–670. Imprimerie Impériale, Paris ([1786] 1862)). In that same paper Lavoisier used the term acide nitrique without remark. The distinction between nitric and nitrous acids was first made explicitly around the same time by Guyton de Morveau (Guyton de Morveau 1788, 35).

  5. 5.

    The list of simple substances given in the Method of Chemical Nomenclature gives charbon pur as the old name for carbone.

  6. 6.

    The French term calorique was not coined until 1787, the English equivalent appeared soon after (Guyton de Morveau 1788, 22).

  7. 7.

    For an interpretation of such corpuscles as chemical atoms, especially in Lavoisier’s later work, see Newman (2009, 259ff).

  8. 8.

    Devised by René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1685–1757), long time director of the Academy. Standardly used in France from its invention in 1730 in until the switch to Celsius in 1790, the Réaumur scale divided the difference in water’s freezing and boiling points into 80°.

  9. 9.

    Lavoisier, A.L.: Mémoire sur la combustion en général. In: Dumas, J.-B. (ed.) Œuvres de Lavoisier, vol. II, pp. 225–233. Imprimerie Impériale, Paris ([1777] 1862). Originally published in: Mém. Acad. R. Sci. Paris année 1777, 592–600 (1780)

  10. 10.

    Georg Ernst Stahl (1659–1734) professor of medicine at the University of Halle from 1694, court physician to King Frederick William I of Prussia from 1715.

  11. 11.

    Macquer, P.-J.: A Dictionary of Chemistry. Cadell, Elmsly, Robson and Bladon, London (1771), 525. Lavoisier makes reference to both the first and second French editions of this work below (D626, D629). The second French edition was never fully translated into English; the second English edition of 1777 was prepared from a partial manuscript of the second French edition but contains much original work from the translator, James Keir. For details, see Neville and Smeaton (1981).

  12. 12.

    I.e. Stahl.

  13. 13.

    Johan Joachim Becher (1635–1682), professor of medicine at University of Mainz from 1657, often regarded as the true originator of the theory that Stahl perfected.

  14. 14.

    For Lavoisier’s attempt to incorporate oxygen into an affinity framework, see his Mémoire sur l'affinité du principe oxygine avec les différentes substances auxquelles il est susceptible de s'unir. In: Dumas (ed.) Œuvres de Lavoisier, vol. II, pp. 546–556. Imprimerie Impériale, Paris ([1782] 1862).

  15. 15.

    This was available to the French chemical community as Stahl, G.E.: Traité du soufre : ou remarques sur la dispute qui s'est élevée entre les chymistes, au sujet du soufre. Didot, Paris ([1718] 1766).

  16. 16.

    Boyle, R.: New experiments, to make the parts of fire and flame stable & ponderable. In: Hunter, M., Davis, E.B. (eds.) The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 7, pp. 299–322. Pickering & Chatto, London (1999).

  17. 17.

    Baumé, A.: Chymie expérimentale et raisonnée. Didot, Paris (1773). The first edition of Macquer’s dictionary appeared in 1766.

  18. 18.

    Lavoisier, A.L.: Nouvelles réflexions sur l'augmentation de poids qu'acquièrent, en brûlant, le souffre et le phosphore, et sur la cause à laquelle on doit l'attribuer. In: Dumas, J.-B. (ed.) Œuvres de Lavoisier, vol. II, pp. 616–622. Imprimerie Impériale, Paris ([1783] 1862), 621.

  19. 19.

    Original reads ‘92 [French] grains’.

  20. 20.

    Priestley, J.: Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air. Johnson, London (1774–7); Experiments and Observations Relating to Various Branches of Natural Philosophy with a Continuation of the Observations on Air. Johnson, London (1779–86).

  21. 21.

    Scheele, C.W.: Chemical Treatise on Air and Fire. In:  The Discovery of Oxygen, vol. 2. Alebmic Club Reprints, vol. 8. The Alembic Club, Edinburgh ([1777] 1912).

  22. 22.

    Original reads ‘80° [Réaumur]’.

  23. 23.

    Guerlac (1961, 29ff) argues that the apparatus that Lavoisier used was a setup designed by his mentor, Guillaume-François Rouelle (1703–1770), itself a combination of two apparatus described and illustrated in Hales, S.: Vegetable Staticks. Innys and Woodward, London (1727). Guerlac suggests that it was a combination of Hales’s “pedestal apparatus” (p. 206, fig. 35) and a proto-pneumatic trough (p. 262, fig. 38). But Guerlac’s reproduction of the Rouelle/Lavoisier device more closely resembles a combination of Hales’s fig. 33 and 34 (p. 160).

  24. 24.

    This note is reproduced as an appendix to Guerlac (1961, 227–228).

  25. 25.

    “Minium” usually refers to Pb3O4, sometimes known as “red lead” in English. Here Lavoisier assumes that the reader is aware that such a reduction would have to take place in the presence of a carbonaceous substance (which he explains explicitly below, D635).

  26. 26.

    A number of Lavoisier’s manuscripts on this work are reproduced in Perrin (1986).

  27. 27.

    Détail des expériences exécutées au moyen du grand verre ardent. In: Dumas (ed.) Œuvres de Lavoisier, vol. III, pp. 284–342. Imprimerie Impériale, Paris (1864). For a detailed description of these and other burning lenses, see Smeaton (1987).

  28. 28.

    Thomas Henry’s English translation of that volume appeared 3 years later as Lavoisier, A.L.: Essays Physical and Chemical. Johnson, London (1776).

  29. 29.

    In 1775 Pierre Bayern told Lavoisier of Jean Rey’s Essays and their remarkable similarity to his work. Lavoisier at first believed that the new edition that appeared (Gobet 1777) was a forgery but by 1792 would come to speak positively of Rey’s work (see McKie 1951, xl).

  30. 30.

    Of the nitrous acid extracted from nitrous air, by a decomposition with common, or dephlogisticated air. In: Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, vol. III, §XV. London, Johnson (1777).

  31. 31.

    The French term mofette and its English equivalent “mephitic air” can refer to any gas that does not support combustion or respiration. Hence Lavoisier here means air stripped of its oxygen.

  32. 32.

    Original reads, “instead of weighing 0.47317 [French] grains per cubic [French] inch, weighs 0.695 grains”.

  33. 33.

    Adair Crawford (1748–95)’s book (1779) sold out immediately and became very rare, so it is more likely that Lavoisier learnt of his work from de Magellan (1781), a précis in French (Guerlac 1976, 231ff).

  34. 34.

    Johan Karl Wilcke (1732–96). The work in question was published in the New Memoirs of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden for the year 1781(1783) (Guerlac 1976, 228ff).

  35. 35.

    Lavoisier worked on calorimetry with his colleague Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749–1827) over the winter of 1782–3. They read their paper to the Academy over two sessions—18th and 25th June 1783—and it was published the same year as a pamphlet (and again the next year with the Mémoires for the year 1780). In the published version they acknowledge the ingenuity of Wilcke’s work, having seen it only after reading their own paper to the Academy (Memoir on Heat. Watson, New York ([1783] 1982), 14).

  36. 36.

    Indeed, Lavoisier believes nitric acid to be composed of highly oxygenated nitrogen (and nothing else)—Lavoisier, A.L.: On the existence of air in the nitrous acid, and on the means of decomposing and recomposing that acid. In: Henry, T. (ed.) Essays on the Effects Produced by Various Processes on Atmospheric Air. pp. 129–138. Johnson, London ([1776] 1783). For his general theory of oxygen as the principle of acidity, see his General Considerations on the Nature of Acids, and on the Principles of which they are composed. In: Henry (ed.) Essays on the Effects Produced by Various Processes on Atmospheric Air, pp. 96–118. Johnson, London ([1781] 1783).

  37. 37.

    An early Greek god, herdsman of sea beasts, who was said to be able to take any form. A number of early-modern natural philosophers used this metaphor for the mutability of nature (Burns 2001), including Francis Bacon who used “proteus” as a name for prime matter ([1609] 1858, 725ff).

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Acknowledgments

The translator would like to thank Florence Greffe, chief archivist at the Académie des Sciences of Paris, and her staff for allowing him to consult handwritten drafts of Lavoisier’s paper. He is also grateful to the Department of History & Philosophy of Science at Indiana University for the award of a Richard S. Westfall Fellowship, which enabled him to take that trip. Parts of this work were completed while on short-term fellowships from the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (now the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine). He thanks both these organisations for their financial support, for access to many pertinent documents and for sharing the expertise of their library staff (particularly Jim Voelkel of the CHF). Cindy Elbaz and Bill Newman provided invaluable advice on various aspects of this translation but the translator takes full responsibility for any mistakes that may remain.

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Best, N.W. Lavoisier’s "Reflections on phlogiston" I: against phlogiston theory. Found Chem 17, 137–151 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10698-015-9220-5

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Keywords

  • Chemical revolution
  • Phlogiston
  • Combustion