Antoine Lavoisier


Antoine Lavoisier : biography

26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794

Easter Memoir

The "official" version of Lavoisier’s Easter Memoir did not appear until 1778. In the intervening period Lavoisier had ample time to repeat some of Priestley’s latest experiments and perform some new ones of his own. In addition to studying Priestley’s dephlogisticated air, he studied more thoroughly the residual air after metals had been calcined. He showed that this residual air supported neither combustion nor respiration and that approximately five volumes of this air added to one volume of the dephlogisticated air gave common atmospheric air. Common air was then a mixture of two distinct chemical species with quite different properties. Thus when the revised version of the Easter Memoir was published in 1778, Lavoisier no longer stated that the principle which combined with metals on calcination was just common air but "nothing else than the healthiest and purest part of the air" or the "eminently respirable part of the air." In the following year Lavoisier coined the name oxygen for this constituent of the air, from the Greek words meaning "acid former." and (English translation) and "Considérations générales sur la nature des acides" ("General Considerations on the Nature of Acids," 1778), He was struck by the fact that the combustion products of such nonmetals as sulfur, phosphorus, charcoal, and nitrogen were acidic. He held that all acids contained oxygen and that oxygen was therefore the acidifying principle.

Dismantling Phlogiston Theory

Lavoisier’s chemical research between 1772 and 1778 was largely concerned with developing his own new theory of combustion. In 1783 he read to the academy his famous paper entitled Réflexions sur le phlogistique (Reflections on Phlogiston), a full-scale attack on the current phlogiston theory of combustion. That year Lavoisier also began a series of experiments on the composition of water which were to prove an important capstone to his combustion theory and win many converts to it. Many investigators had been experimenting with the combination of Henry Cavendish’s inflammable air, which Lavoisier termed hydrogen (Greek for "water-former") with dephlogisticated air (oxygen) by electrically sparking mixtures of the gases. All of the researchers noted the production of water, but all interpreted the reaction in varying ways within the framework of the phlogiston theory. In cooperation with mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace, Lavoisier synthesized water by burning jets of hydrogen and oxygen in a bell jar over mercury. The quantitative results were good enough to support the contention that water was not an element, as had been thought for over 2,000 years, but a compound of two gases, hydrogen and oxygen.

Gunpowder Commission

Lavoisier’s researches on combustion were carried out in the midst of a very busy schedule of public and private duties, especially in connection with the Ferme générale. There were also innumerable reports for and committees of the Academy of Sciences to investigate specific problems on order of the royal government. Lavoisier, whose organizing skills were outstanding, frequently landed the task of writing up such official reports. In 1775 he was made one of four commissioners of gunpowder appointed to replace a private company, similar to the Ferme générale, which had proved unsatisfactory in supplying France with its munitions requirements. As a result of his efforts, both the quantity and quality of French gunpowder greatly improved, and it became a source of revenue for the government. His appointment to the Gunpowder Commission brought one great benefit to Lavoisier’s scientific career as well. As a commissioner, he enjoyed both a house and a laboratory in the Royal Arsenal. Here he lived and worked between 1775 and 1792.

Pioneer of stoichiometry

Lavoisier’s researches included some of the first truly quantitative chemical experiments. He carefully weighed the reactants and products of a chemical reaction in a sealed glass vessel, which was a crucial step in the advancement of chemistry.Petrucci R.H., Harwood W.S. and Herring F.G., General Chemistry (8th ed. Prentice-Hall 2002), p.34 In 1774, he showed that, although matter can change its state in a chemical reaction, the total mass of matter is the same at the end as at the beginning of every chemical change. Thus, for instance, if a piece of wood is burned to ashes, the total mass remains unchanged. Lavoisier’s experiments supported the law of conservation of mass, which he was the first to state, although Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765) had previously expressed similar ideas in 1748 and proved them in experiments. Others whose ideas pre-date the work of Lavoisier include Jean Rey (1583–1645), Joseph Black (1728–1799), and Henry Cavendish (1731–1810). (See )