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Burning a Candle in a Vessel, a Simple Experiment with a Long History

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The experiment in which a candle is burned inside an inverted vessel partially immersed in water has a history of more than 2,200 years, but even nowadays it is common that students and teachers relate the change in volume of the enclosed air to its oxygen content. Contrary to what many people think, Lavoisier concluded that any change in volume in this experiment is negligible; moreover, the explanation relating oxygen consumption in the air with its change in volume is known to be wrong. In this work we briefly review the history behind the candle experiment and its relationship with some typical erroneous explanations. One of the key factors behind Lavoisier’s success was the use of experiments carefully designed to test different hypotheses. Following these steps, we performed several closed volume experiments where the candle wick was replaced by a capillary stainless steel cylinder supported and heated by a nichrome filament connected to an external power supply. Our recorded experiments are displayed as web pages, designed with the purpose that the reader can easily visualize and analyze modern versions of Lavoisier’s experiments. These experiments clearly show an initial phase of complete combustion, followed by a phase of incomplete combustion with elemental carbon or soot rising to the top of the vessel, and a final phase where the hot artificial wick only evaporates a white steam of wax that cannot ignite because no oxygen is left in the closed atmosphere. After either a complete or incomplete combustion of the oxygen, our experiments show that the final gas volume is nearly equal to the initial air volume.

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  1. This is a reproduction of a book published before 1923, a copy of the 1912 edition is available online at

  2. The experiment can be visualized in the web page After all the images are loaded you must press the Play button or advance to the next or previous frame using the arrow keys. It is also possible to move the mouse over the boxes of the navigation bar located below the central image to advance forwards or backwards. This experiment was recorded at 10 frames per second (fps).

  3. Lucio Russo in his book The Forgotten Revolution traced the origins of the modern scientific method back to the Hellenistic Scientists. He quotes for example a revealing phrase from Philo: “That everything cannot be accomplished through pure thought and the methods of mechanics, but much is found also by experiment….”

  4. Lavoisier (1777): j’ai donc résolu de prendre toutes les précautions possibles pour obtenir un résultat plus certain, plus indépendant de toute erreur, et voici l’expérience qui m’a paru devoir être la plus décisive. J’ai assujetti, au milieu d’une capsule de verre, une petite bougie; j’ai fixé à la partie supérieure de la mèche un petit morceau de phosphore de Kunckel, du poids d’un sixième de grain environ; après quoi j’ai placé la capsule sur un bain de mercure, et je l’ai recouverte avec une cloche de cristal; enfin, avec un siphon de verre qui communiquait de l’intérieur de la cloche à l’extérieur, j’ai élevé, en suçant, le mercure jusqu’à une certaine hauteur; que j’ai marquée très-exactement avec une bande de papier collée. Lorsque tout a été ainsi disposé, j’ai fait rougir une petite tringle de fer que j’avais recourbée pour cet objet, puis je l’ai passée par-dessous la cloche à travers le mercure pour aller toucher le haut de la bougie et enflammer le petit morceau de phosphore.

  5. Lavoisier (1777): ce qui peut être regardé comme absolument nul, surtout si l’on fait attention qu’un très-léger changement de la température du lieu où se faisait l’expérience a pu produire cette différence.

  6. Click on the movimiento.html web page in Candle_artificial_wick_partial_combustion/. This experiment was recorded at 10 fps.

  7. By clicking on a point of the image (for example the water level) the coordinates of that point will be stored by the web page software and the next image will be displayed to continue collecting data. Afterwards clicking on the 'VER DATOS' button a new window will be opened displaying the collected data.

  8. Click on the movimiento.html web page in Candle_artificial_wick_total_combustion_1/. This experiment was recorded at 5 fps.

  9. Click on the movimiento.html web page in Candle_artificial_wick_total_combustion_2/. This experiment was recorded at 5 fps.

  10. Click on the movimiento.html web page in Candle_closed_volume_focused_light/.


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We would like to acknowledge financial support from Fondo de Fomento al Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico (FONDEF Project TE10I012), Fondo de Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico (FONDECYT Project 1110713) and from Dirección General de Investigación y Posgrado de la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. We would also like to thank the useful comments made by the six reviewers, which made possible to greatly improve the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Rodrigo Rivera.

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Vera, F., Rivera, R. & Núñez, C. Burning a Candle in a Vessel, a Simple Experiment with a Long History. Sci & Educ 20, 881–893 (2011).

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