Pneumatic chemistry

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Robert Boyle's air pump

Pneumatic chemistry is a term most-closely identified with an area of scientific research of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. Important goals of this work were an understanding of the physical properties of airs (modern day gases) and how they relate to chemical reactions and, ultimately, the composition of matter.

In the eighteenth century, as the field of chemistry was evolving from alchemy, a field of the natural philosophy was created around the idea of air as a reagent. Before this, air was primarily considered a static substance that would not react and simply existed. However, as Lavoisier and several other pneumatic chymists would insist, the air was indeed dynamic, and would not only be influenced by combusted material, but would also influence the properties of different substances.

The initial concern of pneumatic chemistry was combustion reactions, beginning with Hales. These reactions would give off different "airs" as chymists would call them, and these different airs contained more simple substances. Until Lavoisier, these airs were considered separate entities with different properties; Lavoisier was responsible largely for changing the idea of air as being constituted by these different airs that his contemporaries and earlier chymists had discovered.[1]

This study of gases was brought about by Stephen Hale with the invention of the pneumatic trough, an instrument capable of collecting the gas given off by reactions with reproducible results. The term gas was coined by J. B. van Helmont, towards the end of the seventeenth century. This term was derived from the Greek word chaos as a result of his inability to collect properly the substances given off by reactions, as he was the first natural philosopher to make an attempt at carefully studying the third type of matter. However, it was not until Lavoisier performed his research in the eighteenth century that the word was used universally by scientists as a replacement for airs.[2]

Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579 – 1644) is sometimes considered the founder of pneumatic chemistry, as he was the first natural philosopher to take an interest in air as a reagent.[3] Pneumatic chemists credited with discovering chemical elements include Joseph Priestley, Henry Cavendish, Joseph Black, Daniel Rutherford, and Carl Scheele. Other individuals who investigated gases during this period include Robert Boyle, Stephen Hales, William Brownrigg, Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and John Dalton.[4][5][6]

Eighteenth century[edit]

In the eighteenth century, with the rise of combustion analysis in chemistry, Stephen Hales invented the pneumatic trough in order to collect gases from the samples of matter he used; while uninterested in the properties of the gases he collected, he wanted to explore how much gas was given off from the materials he burned or let ferment. Hales was successful in preventing the air from losing its "elasticity," i.e. preventing it from experiencing a loss in volume, by bubbling the gas through water, and therefore dissolving the soluble gases.

After the invention of the pneumatic trough, Stephen Hales continued his research into the different airs, and performed many Newtonian analyses of the various properties of them. He published his book Vegetable Staticks in 1727, and this influenced the entire field of pneumatic chemistry, as no chemist interested in the science of air started their work without reading this book and citing it in their own papers. In Vegetable Staticks, Hales not only introduced his trough, but also the results he obtained from collected the air, such as the elasticity and composition of airs along with their ability to mix with others.[7]

The pneumatic trough was integral thereon in work with gases (or, as contemporary chemists called them, airs). Work done by Joseph Black, Joseph Priestley, Herman Boerhaave, and Henry Cavendish revolved largely around the use of the instrument, allowing them to collect airs given off by different chemical reactions and combustion analyses. Their work led to the discovery of many types of airs, such as dephlogisticated air (discovered by Joseph Priestley).[2]

Moreover, the chemistry of airs was not limited to combustion analyses. During the eighteenth century, many chymists used the discovery of airs as a new path for exploring old problems, with one example being the field of medicinal chemistry. One particular Englishman, James Watt, began to take the idea of airs and use them in what was referred to as pneumatic therapy, or the use of airs to make laboratories more workable with fresh airs and also aid patients with different illnesses, with varying degrees of success. Most human experimentation done was performed on the chymists themselves, as they believed that self-experimentation was a necessary part or progressing the field.[8]

Joseph Black[edit]

Joseph Black was a chymist that took interest in the pneumatic field after studying under William Cullen. While his primary research was in magnesia alba and heat, his research led him to make inferences about fixed air, as given off by reactions involving the salt. Despite him never using the pneumatic trough or other instrumentation invented to collect and analyze the airs, his inferences led to more research into fixed air instead of common air, with the trough actually being used.[2]

Joseph Priestley[edit]

Joseph Priestley chiefly researched with the pneumatic trough, but he was responsible for collecting several new water-soluble airs. This was achieved primarily by his substitution of mercury for water, and implementing a shelf under the head for increased stability, capitalizing on the idea Cavendish proposed and popularizing the mercury pneumatic trough.[2]

Herman Boerhaave[edit]

While not credited for direct research into the field of pneumatic chemistry, Boerhaave (teacher, researcher, and scholar) did publish the Elementa Chimiae in 1727. This treatise included support for Hales' work and also elaborated upon the idea of airs. Despite not publishing his own research, this section on airs in the Elementa Chimie was cited by many other contemporaries and contained much of the current knowledge of the properties of airs.[7]

Henry Cavendish[edit]

Henry Cavendish, despite not being the first to replace water in the trough with mercury, he was among the first to observe that fixed air was insoluble over mercury and therefore could be collected more efficiently using the adapted instrument. He also discovered a new type of air, which he called "inflammable air" (modern day hydrogen), one of the first gases isolated and discovered using the pneumatic trough. However, he did not exploit his own idea to its limit, and therefore did not use the mercury pneumatic trough to its full extent.[2]


Pneumatic trough[edit]

Stephen Hales, called the creator of pneumatic chemistry, created the pneumatic trough in 1727.[9] This instrument was widely used by many chemists to explore the properties of different airs, such as what was called inflammable air (what is modernly called hydrogen). Lavoisier used this in addition to his gasometer to collect gases and analyze them, aiding him in creating his list of simple substances.

The pneumatic trough, invented by Hales in the 1700s. This was the initial model, used for collection of airs by combustion.

The pneumatic trough, while integral throughout the eighteenth century, was modified several times to collect gases more efficiently or just to collect more gas. For example, Cavendish noted that the amount of fixed air that was given off by a reaction was not entirely present above the water; this meant that fixed water was absorbing some of this air, and could not be used quantitatively to collect that particular air. So, he replaced the water in the trough with mercury instead, in which most airs were not soluble. By doing so, he could not only collect all airs given off by a reaction, but he could also determine the solubility of airs in water, beginning a new area of research for pneumatic chemists. While this was the major adaptation of the trough in the eighteenth century, several minor changes were made before and after this substitution of mercury for water, such as adding a shelf to rest the head on while gas collection occurred. This shelf would also allow for less conventional heads to be used, such as Brownrigg's animal bladder.[2]


During his chemical revolution, Lavoisier created a new instrument for precisely measuring out gases. He called this instrument the gazomèter He had two different versions; the one he used in demonstrations to the Academie and to the public, which was a large expensive version meant to make people believe that it had a large precision, and the smaller, more lab practical version with a similar precision. This more practical version was cheaper to construct, allowing more chemists to use Lavoisier's instrument.[9]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Levere, Trevor (2001). Transforming Matter. Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 62–64. ISBN 0-8018-6610-3. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Parascandola, John; Ihde, Aaron J. (1969-01-01). "History of the Pneumatic Trough". Isis. 60 (3): 351–361. JSTOR 229488. doi:10.1086/350503. 
  3. ^ Holmyard, Eric John (1931). Makers of Chemistry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 121. 
  4. ^ Partington, J. P. (1951). A Short History of Chemistry (2 ed.). MacMillan and Company. pp. 65–151. 
  5. ^ Ihde, Aaron J. (1984). The Development of Modern Chemistry. Dover. pp. 32–54.  (originally published in 1964)
  6. ^ Hudson, John (1992). The History of Chemistry. Chapman and Hall. pp. 47–60. 
  7. ^ a b Kirker, Milton (1955). "Herman Boerhaave and the Development of Pneumatic Chemistry". Isis. 46: 36–49. JSTOR 226823. 
  8. ^ Stewart, Larry (September 2009). "His Majesty's Subjects: From Laboratory to Human Experiment in Pneumatic Chemistry". Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. Royal Society of London. 63: 231–245. JSTOR 40647276. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2009.0035. 
  9. ^ a b Levere, Trevor (2001). Transforming Matter. Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 52–5. ISBN 0-8018-6610-3.