Henry Cavendish Life And Works, English Chemist and Physicist Discovered Hydrogen.
Brief biography of Henry Cavendish, English scientist credited for pioneering discovery of hydrogen and “Cavendish experiment” relating the earth’s density.English chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish discovered the element hydrogen (1781) he called “inflammable air,” later named by Lavoisier as hydrogen. Among others, Cavendish is also credited for “Cavendish experiment,” an estimate of the density of the earth precisely what it is believed to be.
Early Life of Henry Cavendish
Henry Cavendish was born on October 10, 1731, in Nice, France, to an English aristocratic family. He inherited a huge sum of money mid-way through his life and used his wealth to indulge his unusual eccentric behaviour. In 1753 he left Cambridge without completing a degree. He built private staircases and entrances to his homes in London so he would not have to interact with his servants, instead, communicated with them through written notes. He only appeared in public for the purposes of attending scientific meetings. However, his love for solitude proved fruitful as it offered him plenty to work on experiments significant to science.
Motivation out of Curiosity
Out of curiosity and not from scientific push, he failed to put many of his discoveries into print, however, he conducted meticulous experiments. It is largely for his work in chemistry that he is best remembered. He published a number of papers. Of the most famous were his 1766 Three Papers Containing Experiments on Factitious Airs (gases made from reactions between liquids and solids.) in which he demonstrated how hydrogen (inflammable air) and carbon dioxide (fixed air) were gases distinct from ‘atmospheric air.’ Although Joseph Black was making similar discoveries with fixed air, Cavendish is credited with being a pioneer in distinguishing and understanding inflammable air.
Cavendish Discoveries: Hydrogen and Air’s Components
In 1781, he discovered hydrogen, the “inflammable air”, mixed with oxygen (from atmospheric air) in quantities of two to one respectively, forming water. In other words, water was not a distinct element as previously viewed during Aristotle’s time, but a compound made from two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen (famously expressed in chemistry as H20). Due to his late publication, only until 1784, his claim discovery became confused with similar observations subsequently made by Antoine Lavoisier and James Watt. He also discovered that air was composed of approximately one part oxygen and four parts nitrogen.
Inert Gas Discovery: Argon
In his experiments to decompose air he found that there was always a residue of about one percent of original mass that could not be broken down further. This ‘inert’ gas came to be studied another century later, what is known now as Argon. Through a series of related experiments, by discovering nitrogen oxide in water, Cavendish also discovered nitric acid.
A Physicist Ahead of His Time
Some of the experiments in terms of physics were considered more than a century ahead of his time, as his works remained unpublished until the late 19th century. Physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) dedicated himself to publishing the works of Cavendish which he completed in 1879. In particular, Cavendish worked significantly with electricity, anticipating laws later named after their discoverers: Charles Coulomb, George Ohm and Michael Faraday. One other experiment for which Cavendish is acclaimed was his findings of the earth’s density. In 1798 he published his estimate of the density of the earth, almost precisely what it is now believed to be. He died on February 24, 1810.