LAVOISIER: Elements of Chemistry [Part I]


  • “We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.Thus mathematicians obtain the solution of a problem by the mere arrangement of data, and by reducing their reasoning to such simple steps, to conclusions so very obvious, as never to lose sight of the evidence which guides them.”
  • “I have imposed upon myself, as a law, never to advance but from what is known to what is unknown; never to form any conclusion which is not an immediate consequence necessarily flowing from observation and experiment.”
  • “A child is taught to give the name tree to the first one which is pointed out to him. The next one he sees presents the same idea, and he gives it the same name. This he does likewise to a third and a fourth, till at last the word tree, which he first applied to an individual, comes to be employed by him as the name of a class or a genus, an abstract idea, which comprehends all trees in general. But, when he learns that all trees serve not the same purpose, that they do not all produce the same kind of fruit, he will soon learn to distinguish them by specific and particular names. This is the logic of all the sciences, and is naturally applied of chemistry.”
  • “Instead of applying observation to the things we wished to know, we have chosen rather to imagine them. Advancing from one ill founded supposition to another, we have at last bewildered ourselves amidst a multitude of errors. These errors becoming prejudices, are, of course, adopted as principles, and we thus bewilder ourselves more and more. The method, too, by which we conduct our reasonings is as absurd; we abuse words which we do not understand, and call this the art of reasoning. When matters have been brought this length, when errors have been thus accumulated, there is but one remedy by which order can be restored to the faculty of thinking; this is, to forget all that we have learned, to trace back our ideas to their source, to follow the train in which they rise, and, as my Lord Bacon says, to frame the human understanding anew.”


Part 1 – Of the Formation and Decomposition of Aëriform Fluids—of the Combustion of Simple Bodies—and the Formation of Acids


Chapter 1 – Of the Combinations of Caloric, and the Formation of Elastic Aëriform Fluids

  • “When we have heated a solid body to a certain degree, and have thereby caused its particles to separate from each other, if we allow the body to cool, its particles again approach each other in the same proportion in which they were separated by the increased temperature; the body returns through the same degrees of expansion which it before extended through; and, if it be brought back to the same temperature from which we set out at the commencement of the experiment, it recovers exactly the same dimensions which it formerly occupied. But, as we are still very far from being able to arrive at the degree of absolute cold, or deprivation of all heat, being unacquainted with any degree of coldness which we cannot suppose capable of still farther augmentation, it follows, that we are still incapable of causing the ultimate particles of bodies to approach each other as near as is possible; and, consequently, that the particles of all bodies do not touch each other in any state hitherto known, which, though a very singular conclusion, is yet impossible to be denied.”
  • “All bodies in nature are either solid or liquid, or in the state of elastic aëriform vapour, according to the proportion which takes place between the attractive force inherent in their particles, and the repulsive power of the heat acting upon these; or, what amounts to the same thing, in proportion to the degree of heat to which they are exposed.”
  • “We have distinguished the cause of heat, or that exquisitely elastic fluid which produces it, by the term of caloric.”
  • “But, if attraction and caloric powers only existed, bodies would become liquid at an indivisible degree of the thermometer, and would almost instantaneously pass from the solid state of aggregation to that of aëriform elasticity. That this does not happen, must depend upon the action of some third power. The pressure of the atmosphere prevents this separation, and causes the water to remain in the liquid state till it be raised to 80° of temperature (212°) above zero of the French thermometer, the quantity of caloric which it receives in the lowest temperature being insufficient to overcome the pressure of the atmosphere.”
  • “We have already shown, that the particles of every substance in nature exist in a certain state of equilibrium, between that attraction which tends to unite and keep the particles together, and the effects of the caloric which tends to separate them. Hence the caloric not only surrounds the particles of all bodies on every side, but fills up every interval which the particles of bodies leave between each other. We may form an idea of this, by supposing a vessel filled with small spherical leaden bullets, into which a quantity of fine sand is poured, which, insinuating into the intervals between the bullets, will fill up every void. The balls, in this comparison, are to the sand which surrounds them exactly in the same situation as the particles of bodies are with respect to the caloric; with this difference only, that the balls are supposed to touch each other, whereas the particles of bodies are not in contact, being retained at a small distance from each other, by the caloric.”
  • “Heat, considered as a sensation, or, in other words, sensible heat, is only the effect produced upon our sentient organs, by the motion or passage of caloric, disengaged from the surrounding bodies. In general, we receive impressions only in consequence of motion, and we might establish it as an axiom, That, without motion, there is no sensation. This general principle applies very accurately to the sensations of heat and cold: When we touch a cold body, the caloric which always tends to become in equilibrio in all bodies, passes from our hand into the body we touch, which gives us the feeling or sensation of cold. The direct contrary happens, when we touch a warm body, the caloric then passing from the body into our hand, produces the sensation of heat. If the hand and the body touched be of the same temperature, or very nearly so, we receive no impression, either of heat or cold, because there is no motion or passage of caloric; and thus no sensation can take place, without some correspondent motion to occasion it.”
  • “It remains, before finishing this article, to say a few words relative to the cause of the elasticity of gasses, and of fluids in the state of vapour. It is by no means difficult to perceive that this elasticity depends upon that of caloric, which seems to be the most eminently elastic body in nature. Nothing is more readily conceived, than that one body should become elastic by entering into combination with another body possessed of that quality. We must allow that this is only an explanation of elasticity, by an assumption of elasticity, and that we thus only remove the difficulty one step farther, and that the nature of elasticity, and the reason for caloric being elastic, remains still unexplained. Elasticity in the abstract is nothing more than that quality of the particles of bodies by which they recede from each other when forced together. This tendency in the particles of caloric to separate, takes place even at considerable distances.”
  • “It is, perhaps, more natural to suppose, that the particles of caloric have a stronger mutual attraction than those of any other substance, and that these latter particles are forced asunder in consequence of this superior attraction between the particles of the caloric, which forces them between the particles of other bodies, that they may be able to reunite with each other.


The most important idea to remember from this chapter is that there are three variables that affect whether a particular substance is in the form of a solid, liquid or gas: 1) the attraction between the particles of a substance; 2) the amount of caloric acting upon the substance; and 3) the pressure of the surrounding atmosphere. Lavoisier asserts that caloric is a substance that pervades another substance and repels the atoms of a substance. The more caloric acts upon a substance, the hotter the substance becomes and the more dispersed its atoms become. I believe that it is helpful to envision caloric, or the cause of heat, as some highly elastic substance that seeps into substances and forces the other atoms apart from each other because it becomes self-evident that heat is transferred from hot substances to cold, and not vice versa. Furthermore, Lavoisier mentions that if it were possible to reach absolute zero temperature, the atoms of a substance theoretically might be touching each other. Else, the atoms of any substance must have a small space between one another because any amount of caloric will disperse itself evenly throughout a substance and force the atoms apart. What would happen if the fundamental elements of a substance were touching?


Chapter 2 – General Views relative to the Formation and Composition of our Atmosphere

  • The atmosphere of earth “must necessarily consist of a mixture of the following substances: First, Of all bodies that are susceptible of evaporation, or, more strictly speaking, which are capable of retaining the state of aëriform elasticity in the temperature of our atmosphere, and under a pressure equal to that of a column of twenty-eight inches of quicksilver in the barometer; and, secondly, Of all substances, whether liquid or solid, which are capable of being dissolved by this mixture of different gasses.”
  • “Solidity, liquidity, and aëriform elasticity, are only three different states of existence of the same matter, or three particular modifications which almost all substances are susceptible of assuming successively.”
  • “It is extremely probable that air is a fluid naturally existing in a state of vapour; or, as we may better express it, that our atmosphere is a compound of all the fluids which are susceptible of the vaporous or permanently elastic state, in the usual temperature, and under the common pressure.”
  • “It is not impossible we may discover, in our atmosphere, certain substances naturally very compact, even metals themselves.”


Chapter 3 – Analysis of Atmospheric Air, and its Division into two Elastic Fluids; the one fit for Respiration, the other incapable of being respired

  • “Chemistry affords two general methods of determining the constituent principles of bodies, the method of analysis, and that of synthesis.”
  • “I mentioned before, that we have two ways of determining the constituent parts of atmospheric air, the method of analysis, and that by synthesis. The calcination of mercury has furnished us with an example of each of these methods, since, after having robbed the respirable part of its base, by means of the mercury, we have restored it, so as to recompose an air precisely similar to that of the atmosphere. But we can equally accomplish this synthetic composition of atmospheric air, by borrowing the materials of which it is composed from different kingdoms of nature. We shall see hereafter that, when animal substances are dissolved in the nitric acid, a great quantity of gas is disengaged, which extinguishes light, and is unfit for animal respiration, being exactly similar to the noxious or mephitic part of atmospheric air. And, if we take 73 parts, by weight, of this elastic fluid, and mix it with 27 parts of highly respirable air, procured from calcined mercury, we will form an elastic fluid precisely similar to atmospheric air in all its properties.”


Chapter 4 – Nomenclature of the several Constituent Parts of Atmospheric Air

  • “Gas, therefore, in our nomenclature, becomes a generic term, expressing the fullest degree of saturation in any body with caloric; being, in fact, a term expressive of a mode of existence. To distinguish each species of gas, we employ a second term from the name of the base, which, saturated with caloric, forms each particular gas. Thus, we name water combined to saturation with caloric, so as to form an elastic fluid, aqueous gas; ether, combined in the same manner, etherial gas; the combination of alkohol with caloric, becomes alkoholic gas; and, following the same principles, we have muriatic acid gas, ammoniacal gas, and so on of every substance susceptible of being combined with caloric, in such a manner as to assume the gasseous or elastic aëriform state.”
  • “The atmospheric air is composed of two gasses, or aëriform fluids, one of which is capable, by respiration, of contributing to animal life, and in which metals are calcinable, and combustible bodies may burn; the other, on the contrary, is endowed with directly opposite qualities; it cannot be breathed by animals, neither will it admit of the combustion of inflammable bodies, nor of the calcination of metals. We have given to the base of the former, or respirable portion of the air, the name of oxygen, from οξυς acidum, and γεινομας, gignor; because, in reality, one of the most general properties of this base is to form acids, by combining with many different substances. The union of this base with caloric we term oxygen gas, which is the same with what was formerly called pure, or vital air.”
  • “The chemical properties of the noxious portion of atmospheric air being hitherto but little known, we have been satisfied to derive the name of its base from its known quality of killing such animals as are forced to breathe it, giving it the name of azote, from the Greek privitive particle α and ξαη, vita; hence the name of the noxious part of atmospheric air is azotic gas.”


Chapter 5 – Of the Decomposition of Oxygen Gas by Sulphur, Phosphorus, and Charcoal—and of the Formation of Acids in general

  • “At a certain degree of temperature, oxygen possesses a stronger elective attraction, or affinity, for phosphorus than for caloric; that, in consequence of this, the phosphorus attracts the base of oxygen gas from the caloric, which, being set free, spreads itself over the surrounding bodies.”
  • “We shall distinguish this conversion of phosphorus into an acid, by its union with oxygen, and in general every combination of oxygen with a combustible substance, by the term of oxygenation: from which I shall adopt the verb to oxygenate, and of consequence shall say, that in oxygenating phosphorus we convert it into an acid.”
  • “The three examples above cited [phosphorus, sulphur, and charcoal] may suffice for giving a clear and accurate conception of the manner in which acids are formed. By these it may be clearly seen, that oxygen is an element common to them all, which constitutes their acidity; and that they differ from each other, according to the nature of the oxygenated or acidified substance. We must therefore, in every acid, carefully distinguish between the acidifiable, base, which Mr de Morveau calls the radical, and the acidifiing principle or oxygen.”


Chapter 6 – Of the Nomenclature of Acids in general, and particularly of those drawn from Nitre and Sea-Salt

  • “We shall therefore say, in this new chemical language, that sulphur, in combining with oxygen, is susceptible of two degrees of saturation; that the first, or lesser degree, constitutes sulphurous acid, which is volatile and penetrating; whilst the second, or higher degree of saturation, produces sulphuric acid, which is fixed and inodorous. We shall adopt this difference of termination for all the acids which assume several degrees of saturation. Hence we have a phosphorous and a phosphoric acid, an acetous and an acetic acid; and so on, for others in similar circumstances.”
  • “But when, on the contrary, an acid happened to be discovered before its base, or rather, when the acidifiable base from which it was formed remained unknown, names were adopted for the two, which have not the smallest connection.”
  • “Although we have not yet been able, either to compose or to decompound this acid of sea-salt, we cannot have the smallest doubt that it, like all other acids, is composed by the union of oxygen with an acidifiable base. We have therefore called this unknown substance the muriatic base, or muriatic radical, deriving this name, after the example of Mr Bergman and Mr de Morveau, from the Latin word muria, which was anciently used to signify sea-salt.”
  • “Nitric acid is the acid of nitre, surcharged with oxygen; nitrous acid is the acid of nitre surcharged with azote; or, what is the same thing, with nitrous gas; and this latter is azote not sufficiently saturated with oxygen to possess the properties of an acid. To this degree of oxygenation, we have afterwards, in the course of this work, given the generical name of oxyd.”


Chapter 7 – Of the Decomposition of Oxygen Gas by means of Metals, and the Formation of Metallic Oxyds

  • “Oxygen has a stronger affinity with metals heated to a certain degree than with caloric; in consequence of which, all metallic bodies, excepting gold, silver, and platina, have the property of decomposing oxygen gas, by attracting its base from the caloric with which it was combined.”
  • “The first or lowest degree of oxygenation in bodies, converts them into oxyds; a second degree of additional oxygenation constitutes the class of acids, of which the specific names, drawn from their particular bases, terminate in ous, as the nitrous and sulphurous acids; the third degree of oxygenation changes these into the species of acids distinguished by the termination in ic, as the nitric and sulphuric acids; and, lastly, we can express a fourth, or highest degree of oxygenation, by adding the word oxygenated to the name of the acid, as has been already done with the oxygenated muriatic acid.”
  • “We have already observed, that almost all the metallic oxyds have peculiar and permanent colours. These vary not only in the different species of metals, but even according to the various degrees of oxygenation in the same metal. Hence we are under the necessity of adding two epithets to each oxyd, one of which indicates the metal oxydated, while the other indicates the peculiar colour of the oxyd. Thus, we have the black oxyd of iron, the red oxyd of iron, and the yellow oxyd of iron.”


Chapter 8 – Of the Radical Principle of Water, and of its Decomposition by Charcoal and Iron

  • “Until very lately, water has always been thought a simple substance, insomuch that the older chemists considered it as an element. Such it undoubtedly was to them, as they were unable to decompose it; or, at least, since the decomposition which took place daily before their eyes was entirely unnoticed. But we mean to prove, that water is by no means a simple or elementary substance.”
  • “In this experiment we have a true oxydation of iron, by means of water, exactly similar to that produced in air by the assistance of heat. One hundred grains of water having been decomposed, 85 grs. of oxygen have combined with the iron, so as to convert it into the state of black oxyd, and 15 grs. of a peculiar inflammable gas are disengaged: From all this it clearly follows, that water is composed of oxygen combined with the base of an inflammable gas, in the respective proportions of 85 parts, by weight of the former, to 15 parts of the latter.”
  • “Thus water, besides the oxygen, which is one of its elements in common with many other substances, contains another element as its constituent base or radical, and for which we must find an appropriate term. None that we could think of seemed better adapted than the word hydrogen, which signifies the generative principle of water.”
  • “This expression Hydrogen has been very severely criticised by some, who pretend that it signifies engendered by water, and not that which engenders water. The experiments related in this chapter prove, that, when water is decomposed, hydrogen is produced, and that, when hydrogen is combined with oxygen, water is produced: So that we may say, with equal truth, that water is produced from hydrogen, or hydrogen is produced from water.”
  • “When 16 ounces of alkohol are burnt in an apparatus properly adapted for collecting all the water disengaged during the combustion, we obtain from 17 to 18 ounces of water. As no substance can furnish a product larger than its original bulk, it follows, that something else has united with the alkohol during its combustion; and I have already shown that this must be oxygen, or the base of air. Thus alkohol contains hydrogen, which is one of the elements of water; and the atmospheric air contains oxygen, which is the other element necessary to the composition of water. This experiment is a new proof that water is a compound substance.”
  • “This decomposition and recomposition of water is perpetually operating before our eyes, in the temperature of the atmosphere, by means of compound elective attraction. It is very extraordinary that this fact should have hitherto been overlooked by natural philosophers and chemists: Indeed, it strongly proves, that, in chemistry, as in moral philosophy, it is extremely difficult to overcome prejudices imbibed in early education, and to search for truth in any other road than the one we have been accustomed to follow.”


In modern times, we take for granted that water is composed of two elements – hydrogen and oxygen – but most of us would be at a lost as to proving this truth. At one time, water was believed to be a fundamental element of the universe. In this chapter, Lavoisier details the experiments which demonstrate the composition of water. Although the term ‘H2O’ is now accepted as the elemental composition of water, Lavoisier’s discovery was truly astonishing during his lifetime. What other truths, which appear to us as axioms, are yet to be proven incorrect by advances in our understanding of nature?


Chapter 9 – Of the quantities of Caloric disengaged from different species of Combustion

  • “One pound of charcoal during combustion melts only 96 libs. 8 oz. of ice, whilst it absorbs 2 libs. 9 oz. 1 gros 10 grs. of oxygen. By the experiment with phosphorus, this quantity of oxygen gas ought to disengage a quantity of caloric sufficient to melt 171 libs. 6 oz. 5 gros of ice; consequently, during this experiment, a quantity of caloric, sufficient to melt 74 libs. 14 oz. 5 gros of ice disappears. Carbonic acid is not, like phosphoric acid, in a concrete state after combustion but in the state of gas, and requires to be united with caloric to enable it to subsist in that state; the quantity of caloric missing in the last experiment is evidently employed for that purpose.”


Chapter 10 – Of the Combination of Combustible Substances with each other

  • “As combustible substances in general have a great affinity for oxygen, they ought likewise to attract, or tend to combine with each other; quae sunt eadem uni tertio, sunt eadem inter se; and the axiom is found to be true. Almost all the metals, for instance, are capable of uniting with each other, and forming what are called alloys.”


Chapter 11 – Observations upon Oxyds and Acids with several Bases—and upon the Composition of Animal and Vegetable Substances

  • “There exist acids and oxyds having double and triple bases. Nature furnishes us with numerous examples of this kind of combinations, by means of which, chiefly, she is enabled to produce a vast variety of compounds from a very limited number of elements, or simple substances.”
  • “It was long ago well known, that, when muriatic and nitric acids were mixed together, a compound acid was formed, having properties quite distinct from those of either of the acids taken separately. This acid was called aqua regia, from its most celebrated property of dissolving gold, called king of metals by the alchymists.”


Chapter 12 – Of the Decomposition of Vegetable and Animal Substances by the Action of Fire

  • “The true constituent elements of vegetables are hydrogen, oxygen, and charcoal: These are common to all vegetables, and no vegetable can exist without them: Such other substances as exist in particular vegetables are only essential to the composition of those in which they are found, and do not belong to vegetables in general.”
  • “If the increased temperature to which the vegetable is exposed does not exceed the heat of boiling water, one part of the hydrogen combines with the oxygen, and forms water, the rest of the hydrogen combines with a part of the charcoal, and forms volatile oil, whilst the remainder of the charcoal, being set free from its combination with the other elements, remains fixed in the bottom of the distilling vessel.”
  • “When, on the contrary, we employ a red heat, no water is formed, or, at least, any that may have been produced by the first application of the heat is decomposed, the oxygen having a greater affinity with the charcoal at this degree of heat, combines with it to form carbonic acid, and the hydrogen being left free from combination with the other elements, unites with caloric, and escapes in the state of hydrogen gas.”
  • “The operation of affinities which take place during the decomposition, by fire, of vegetables which contain azote, such as the cruciferous plants, and of those containing phosphorus, is more complicated; but, as these substances only enter into the composition of vegetables in very small quantities, they only, apparently, produce slight changes upon the products of distillation; the phosphorus seems to combine with the charcoal, and, acquiring fixity from that union, remains behind in the retort, while the azote, combining with a part of the hydrogen, forms ammoniac, or volatile alkali.”
  • “Animal substances, being composed nearly of the same elements with cruciferous plants, give the same products in distillation, with this difference, that, as they contain a greater quantity of hydrogen and azote, they produce more oil and more ammoniac.”


Chapter 13 – Of the Decomposition of Vegetable Oxyds by the Vinous Fermentation

  • “The manner in which wine, cyder, mead, and all the liquors formed by the spiritous fermentation, are produced, is well known to every one. The juice of grapes or of apples being expressed, and the latter being diluted with water, they are put into large vats, which are kept in a temperature of at least 10° (54.5°) of the thermometer. A rapid intestine motion, or fermentation, very soon takes place, numerous globules of gas form in the liquid and burst at the surface; when the fermentation is at its height, the quantity of gas disengaged is so great as to make the liquor appear as if boiling violently over a fire. When this gas is carefully gathered, it is found to be carbonic acid perfectly pure, and free from admixture with any other species of air or gas whatever.”
  • “Sugar must be mixed with about four times its weight of water, to render it susceptible of fermentation; and even then the equilibrium of its elements would remain undisturbed, without the assistance of some substance, to give a commencement to the fermentation. This is accomplished by means of a little yeast from beer; and, when the fermentation is once excited, it continues of itself until completed.”


Chapter 14 – Of the Putrefactive Fermentation

  • “The phenomena of putrefaction are caused, like those of vinous fermentation, by the operation of very complicated affinities. The constituent elements of the bodies submitted to this process cease to continue in equilibrium in the threefold combination, and form themselves anew into binary combinations, or compounds, consisting of two elements only; but these are entirely different from the results produced by the vinous fermentation. Instead of one part of the hydrogen remaining united with part of the water and charcoal to form alkohol, as in the vinous fermentation, the whole of the hydrogen is dissipated, during putrefaction, in the form of hydrogen gas, whilst, at the same time, the oxygen and charcoal, uniting with caloric, escape in the form of carbonic acid gas; so that, when the whole process is finished, especially if the materials have been mixed with a sufficient quantity of water, nothing remains but the earth of the vegetable mixed with a small portion of charcoal and iron.”
  • “The addition of azote to the materials of putrefaction not only accelerates the process, that element likewise combines with part of the hydrogen, and forms a new substance called volatile alkali or ammoniac.”


Chapter 15 – Of the Acetous Fermentation

  • “The acetous fermentation is nothing more than the acidification or oxygenation of wine, produced in the open air by means of the absorption of oxygen. The resulting acid is the acetous acid, commonly called Vinegar.”


Chapter 16 – Of the Formation of Neutral Salts, and of their different Bases

  • “Acidifiable substances, by combining with oxygen, and their consequent conversion into acids, acquire great susceptibility of farther combination; they become capable of uniting with earthy and metallic bodies, by which means neutral salts are formed. Acids may therefore be considered as true salifying principles, and the substances with which they unite to form neutral salts may be called salifiable bases.”
  • The salifiable bases “are potash, soda, ammoniac, lime, magnesia, barytes, argill, and all the metallic bodies.”


Chapter 17 – Continuation of the Observations upon Salifiable Bases, and the Formation of Neutral Salts

  • “It is necessary to remark, that earths and alkalies unite with acids to form neutral salts without the intervention of any medium, whereas metallic substances are incapable of forming this combination without being previously less or more oxygenated; strictly speaking, therefore, metals are not soluble in acids, but only metallic oxyds.”
  • “Every edifice which is intended to resist the ravages of time should be built upon a sure foundation.”


Part 1 of Lavoisier’s Elements contains many insights about Chemistry and the process by which men attain knowledge. Being a treatise of Chemistry, it is not surprising that Lavoisier describes many experiments and discoveries related to the science. But I was very much pleased to read some of Lavoisier’s opinions about the method everyone ought to employ in regards to seeking the truth. He is clearly influenced by the method employed by Euclid in that mathematician’s Elements; I do not think that it is a coincidence that both of the treatises bear the same name. Lavoisier insists that one ought to begin with basic truths and seek profounder truths using only the truths that have been established with certainty. This methodology is also similar to the one used by Descartes in his Meditations, which I eagerly wish to read again soon.

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