Encyclopedia of Paleoclimatology and Ancient Environments

2009 Edition
| Editors: Vivien Gornitz

Carbon Cycle

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-4411-3_28

Historical background of the carbon cycle

The discovery that plants use carbon dioxide for growth in sunlight and return it to the atmosphere in darkness must have been the first scientific observation of part of the carbon cycle. The discovery of carbon dioxide as a gas that forms by fermentation and burning of charcoal, under the name of spiritus silvestris, is attributed to Jan Baptista (or Baptist) van Helmont, a man of medicine, alchemy, and early chemistry in the then Spanish Netherlands, in the first half of the 1600s (e.g., Graham, 1974). Presentation of the first general scheme of the carbon and nitrogen cycles was attributed to the French chemist, Jean Baptiste André Dumas, in 1841 (Rankama and Sahama, 1950, p. 535). Dumas (1842) described the cycle of CO2consumption and production by respiration, pointing to the sources of “carbonic acid” in the air and soil where it forms from decomposition of manure or organic fertilizers. He also pointed out that the Earth’s primordial...

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