Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac


Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac : biography

06 December 1778 – 09 May 1850

A report about chemical characteristics of Berlin blue was made on the 18th of September in 1815. He also made emphasized in this report on the acid which was extracted from Berlin blue and called hydrocyanic by Guyton de Morveau. He proved that cyanogen was a compound of nitrogen and carbon, and hydrocyanic was a compound of cyanogen with hydrogen. Besides he managed to get cyanogen chloride – a compound of cyanogen and chlorine.

Gay-Lussac’s works on research of Berlin blue contained two important discoveries. He proved that cyanide was a compound substance and in chemical interactions with hydrogen, chlorine and metals it behaved as a simple substance. Besides he disproved a widely spread prejudice of that time that carbon couldn’t combine with nitrogen.

The fact that hydrocyanic acid was strong poison was even more surprising because simple substances that formed it were considered to be absolutely harmless (for example, nitrogen is a part of air, hydrogen is a part of water and carbon is a part of coal).

Meteorology research

In 1816 Gay-Lussac published description of a hand siphon barometer which was used in meteorology for a long time after that. In 1822 he made a supposition in one of the issues of “Chemistry and physics chronicle” that clouds consisted of little beads as soap beads and they ascended by flows of air.

In 1818 Gay-Lussac made an explanation of electric storm in on of the letters to Humboldt – for our times it was rather naïve. In his opinion electricity is widely spread in the air. Electricity in thundercloud which had characteristics of solids strived for appearing on the surface. It accumulated in big amounts on the surface of clouds and got over air resistance making long electrical sparks.

In 1823 in a note “Thoughts” which was published in “Chemistry and physics chronicle” Gay-Lussac set forth ideas which were aroused by observations of Vesuvius in 1805. In his opinion eruptions happened because of sea water which affected on central heat of the Earth. As a result of this interaction hydrogen and hydrochloric acids were formed in big amounts and were found out in coming gases.


Since 1820 Gay-Lussac spent considerable part of time working for industry and government. It was connected with restricted financial situation in the family and necessity to keep family.

In 1822 Gay-Lussac introduced into practice aerometer which principle of action stayed invariable till nowadays. It took six months of intense work to make tables of areometer’s calibration for different substances. Gay-Lussac made a big contribution in development of chemical industry and suggested a simple and safe method of sulfuric acid production. He also was an inventor of a simple method of separation gold from copper.

Last years of life

In last years of life the scientist secluded himself in his estate Lussac and devoted his life to writing the work “Chemical philosophy” which wasn’t finished.

Personal features

In the period when modern science started to develop coexisting with century-long prejudices and glaring delusions personal features of a scientist had a great importance. The majority of contemporaries noted extraordinary honesty of Gay-Lussac as a human and a scientist. He was severe and exacting to himself, his colleagues and scientific opponents in spite of their great services and regalia. He always thought that it was his charge to admit and publish his own mistakes and delusions if he found such things.

Another typical feature of Gay0Lussac was his personal fearlessness which appeared while conducting dangerous scientific experiments and defending his family, friends and colleagues from political repressions and censorship.

Gay-Lussac was always serious and restrained but sometimes he had bursts of sincere cheerfulness. Students saw him several times in laboratory dancing in rubbers (the laboratory was in the cellar) after a successful experiment. Gay-Lussac was a stranger to political parties, in the chamber of deputies and the chamber of peers he made reports and speeches on the rostrum only when questions connected with scientific research appeared.