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Conversations on Chemistry, V. 1-2
by Jane Marcet
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MRS. B.

But this only partly accounts for the result of the experiment; it remains to be explained why the temperature of the ether, while in a state of ebullition, is brought down to the freezing temperature of the water. —It is because the ether, during its evaporation, reduces its own temperature, in the same proportion as that of the water, by converting its free caloric into latent heat: so that, though one liquid boils, and the other freezes, their temperatures remain in a state of equilibrium.

EMILY.

But why does not water, as well as ether, reduce its own temperature by evaporating?

MRS. B.

The fact is that it does, though much less rapidly than ether. Thus, for instance, you may often have observed, in the heat of summer, how much any particular spot may be cooled by watering, though the water used for that purpose be as warm as the air itself. Indeed so much cold may be produced by the mere evaporation of water, that the inhabitants of India, by availing themselves of the most favourable circumstances for this process which their warm climate can afford, namely, the cool of the night, and situations most exposed to the night breeze, succeed in causing water to freeze, though the temperature of the air be as high as 60 degrees. The water is put into shallow earthen trays, so as to expose an extensive surface to the process of evaporation, and in the morning, the water is found covered with a thin cake of ice, which is collected in sufficient quantity to be used for purposes of luxury.

CAROLINE.

How delicious it must be to drink liquids so cold in those tropical climates! But, Mrs. B., could we not try that experiment?

MRS. B.

If we were in the country, I have no doubt but that we should be able to freeze water, by the same means, and under similar circumstances. But we can do it immediately, upon a small scale, in this very room, in which the thermometer stands at 70 degrees. For this purpose we need only place some water in a little cup under the receiver of the air-pump (PLATE V. fig. 1.), and exhaust the air from it. What will be the consequence, Caroline?



CAROLINE.

Of course the water will evaporate more quickly, since there will no longer be any atmospheric pressure on its surface: but will this be sufficient to make the water freeze?

MRS. B.

Probably not, because the vapour will not be carried off fast enough; but this will be accomplished without difficulty if we introduce into the receiver (fig. 1.), in a saucer, or other large shallow vessel, some strong sulphuric acid, a substance which has a great attraction for water, whether in the form of vapour, or in the liquid state. This attraction is such that the acid will instantly absorb the moisture as it rises from the water, so as to make room for the formation of fresh vapour; this will of course hasten the process, and the cold produced from the rapid evaporation of the water, will, in a few minutes, be sufficient to freeze its surface.* We shall now exhaust the air from the receiver.

[Footnote *: This experiment was first devised by Mr. Leslie, and has since been modified in a variety of forms.]

EMILY.

Thousands of small bubbles already rise through the water from the internal surface of the cup; what is the reason of this?

MRS. B.

These are bubbles of air which were partly attached to the vessel, and partly diffused in the water itself; and they expand and rise in consequence of the atmospheric pressure being removed.

CAROLINE.

See, Mrs. B.; the thermometer in the cup is sinking fast; it has already descended to 40 degrees!

EMILY.

The water seems now and then violently agitated on the surface, as if it was boiling; and yet the thermometer is descending fast!

MRS. B.

You may call it boiling, if you please, for this appearance is, as well as boiling, owing to the rapid formation of vapour; but here, as you have just observed, it takes place from the surface, for it is only when heat is applied to the bottom of the vessel that the vapour is formed there. —Now crystals of ice are actually shooting all over the surface of the water.

CAROLINE.

How beautiful it is! The surface is now entirely frozen—but the thermometer remains at 32 degrees.

MRS. B.

And so it will, conformably with our doctrine of latent heat, until the whole of the water is frozen; but it will then again begin to descend lower and lower, in consequence of the evaporation which goes on from the surface of the ice.

EMILY.

This is a most interesting experiment; but it would be still more striking if no sulphuric acid were required.

MRS. B.

I will show you a freezing instrument, contrived by Dr. Wollaston, upon the same principle as Mr. Leslie's experiment, by which water may be frozen by its own evaporation alone, without the assistance of sulphuric acid.

This tube, which, as you see (PLATE V. fig. 2.), is terminated at each extremity by a bulb, one of which is half full of water, is internally perfectly exhausted of air; the consequence of this is, that the water in the bulb is always much disposed to evaporate. This evaporation, however, does not proceed sufficiently fast to freeze the water; but if the empty ball be cooled by some artificial means, so as to condense quickly the vapour which rises from the water, the process may be thus so much promoted as to cause the water to freeze in the other ball. Dr. Wollaston has called this instrument Cryophorus.

CAROLINE.

So that cold seems to perform here the same part which the sulphuric acid acted in Mr. Leslie's experiment?

MRS. B.

Exactly so; but let us try the experiment.

EMILY.

How will you cool the instrument? You have neither ice nor snow.

MRS. B.

True: but we have other means of effecting this.* You recollect what an intense cold can be produced by the evaporation of ether in an exhausted receiver. We shall inclose the bulb in this little bag of fine flannel (fig. 3.), then soke it in ether, and introduce it into the receiver of the air-pump. (Fig. 5.) For this purpose we shall find it more convenient to use a cryophorus of this shape (fig. 4.), as its elongated bulb passes easily through a brass plate which closes the top of the receiver. If we now exhaust the receiver quickly, you will see, in less than a minute, the water freeze in the other bulb, out of the receiver.

[Footnote *: This mode of making the experiment was proposed, and the particulars detailed, by Dr. Marcet, in the 34th vol. of Nicholson's Journal, page 119.]

EMILY.

The bulb already looks quite dim, and small drops of water are condensing on its surface.

CAROLINE.

And now crystals of ice shoot all over the water. This is, indeed, a very curious experiment!

MRS. B.

You will see, some other day, that, by a similar method, even quicksilver may be frozen. —But we cannot at present indulge in any further digression.

Having advanced so far on the subject of heat, I may now give you an account of the calorimeter, an instrument invented by Lavoisier, upon the principles just explained, for the purpose of estimating the specific heat of bodies. It consists of a vessel, the inner surface of which is lined with ice, so as to form a sort of hollow globe of ice, in the midst of which the body, whose specific heat is to be ascertained, is placed. The ice absorbs caloric from this body, till it has brought it down to the freezing point; this caloric converts into water a certain portion of the ice which runs out through an aperture at the bottom of the machine; and the quantity of ice changed to water is a test of the quantity of caloric which the body has given out in descending from a certain temperature to the freezing point.

CAROLINE.

In this apparatus, I suppose, the milk, chalk, and lead, would melt different quantities of ice, in proportion to their different capacities for caloric?

MRS. B.

Certainly: and thence we are able to ascertain, with precision, their respective capacities for heat. But the calorimeter affords us no more idea of the absolute quantity of heat contained in a body, than the thermometer; for though by means of it we extricate both the free and combined caloric, yet we extricate them only to a certain degree, which is the freezing point; and we know not how much they contain of either below that point.

EMILY.

According to the theory of latent heat, it appears to me that the weather should be warm when it freezes, and cold in a thaw: for latent heat is liberated from every substance that it freezes, and such a large supply of heat must warm the atmosphere; whilst, during a thaw, that very quantity of free heat must be taken from the atmosphere, and return to a latent state in the bodies which it thaws.

MRS. B.

Your observation is very natural; but consider that in a frost the atmosphere is so much colder than the earth, that all the caloric which it takes from the freezing bodies is insufficient to raise its temperature above the freezing point; otherwise the frost must cease. But if the quantity of latent heat extricated does not destroy the frost, it serves to moderate the suddenness of the change of temperature of the atmosphere, at the commencement both of frost, and of a thaw. In the first instance, its extrication diminishes the severity of the cold; and, in the latter, its absorption moderates the warmth occasioned by a thaw: it even sometimes produces a discernible chill, at the breaking up of a frost.

CAROLINE.

But what are the general causes that produce those sudden changes in the weather, especially from hot to cold, which we often experience?

MRS. B.

This question would lead us into meteorological discussions, to which I am by no means competent. One circumstance, however, we can easily understand. When the air has passed over cold countries, it will probably arrive here at a temperature much below our own, and then it must absorb heat from every object it meets with, which will produce a general fall of temperature.

CAROLINE.

But pray, now that we know so much of the effects of heat, will you inform us whether it is really a distinct body, or, as I have heard, a peculiar kind of motion produced in bodies?

MRS. B.

As I before told you, there is yet much uncertainty as to the nature of these subtle agents. But I am inclined to consider heat not as mere motion, but as a separate substance. Late experiments too appear to make it a compound body, consisting of the two electricities, and in our next conversation I shall inform you of the principal facts on which that opinion is founded.



CONVERSATION V.

ON THE CHEMICAL AGENCIES OF ELECTRICITY.

MRS. B.

Before we proceed further it will be necessary to give you some account of certain properties of electricity, which have of late years been discovered to have an essential connection with the phenomena of chemistry.

CAROLINE.

It is ELECTRICITY, if I recollect right, which comes next in our list of simple substances?

MRS. B.

I have placed electricity in that list, rather from the necessity of classing it somewhere, than from any conviction that it has a right to that situation, for we are as yet so ignorant of its intimate nature, that we are unable to determine, not only whether it is simple or compound, but whether it is in fact a material agent; or, as Sir H. Davy has hinted, whether it may not be merely a property inherent in matter. As, however, it is necessary to adopt some hypothesis for the explanation of the discoveries which this agent has enabled us to make, I have chosen the opinion, at present most prevalent, which supposes the existence of two kinds of electricity, distinguished by the names of positive and negative electricity.

CAROLINE.

Well, I must confess, I do not feel nearly so interested in a science in which so much uncertainty prevails, as in those which rest upon established principles; I never was fond of electricity, because, however beautiful and curious the phenomena it exhibits may be, the theories, by which they were explained, appeared to me so various, so obscure and inadequate, that I always remained dissatisfied. I was in hopes that the new discoveries in electricity had thrown so great a light on the subject, that every thing respecting it would now have been clearly explained.

MRS. B.

That is a point which we are yet far from having attained. But, in spite of the imperfection of our theories, you will be amply repaid by the importance and novelty of the subject. The number of new facts which have already been ascertained, and the immense prospect of discovery which has lately been opened to us, will, I hope, ultimately lead to a perfect elucidation of this branch of natural science; but at present you must be contented with studying the effects, and in some degree explaining the phenomena, without aspiring to a precise knowledge of the remote cause of electricity.

You have already obtained some notions of electricity: in our present conversation, therefore, I shall confine myself to that part of the science which is of late discovery, and is more particularly connected with chemistry.

It was a trifling and accidental circumstance which first gave rise to this new branch of physical science. Galvani, a professor of natural philosophy at Bologna, being engaged (about twenty years ago) in some experiments on muscular irritability, observed, that when a piece of metal was laid on the nerve of a frog, recently dead, whilst the limb supplied by that nerve rested upon some other metal, the limb suddenly moved, on a communication being made between the two pieces of metal.

EMILY.

How is this communication made?

MRS. B.

Either by bringing the two metals into contact, or by connecting them by means of a metallic conductor. But without subjecting a frog to any cruel experiments, I can easily make you sensible of this kind of electric action. Here is a piece of zinc, (one of the metals I mentioned in the list of elementary bodies)—put it under your tongue, and this piece of silver upon your tongue, and let both the metals project a little beyond the tip of the tongue—very well—now make the projecting parts of the metals touch each other, and you will instantly perceive a peculiar sensation.

EMILY.

Indeed I did, a singular taste, and I think a degree of heat: but I can hardly describe it.

MRS. B.

The action of these two pieces of metal on the tongue is, I believe, precisely similar to that made on the nerve of a frog. I shall not detain you by a detailed account of the theory by which Galvani attempted to account for this fact, as his explanation was soon overturned by subsequent experiments, which proved that Galvanism (the name this new power had obtained) was nothing more than electricity. Galvani supposed that the virtue of this new agent resided in the nerves of the frog, but Volta, who prosecuted this subject with much greater success, shewed that the phenomena did not depend on the organs of the frog, but upon the electrical agency of the metals, which is excited by the moisture of the animal, the organs of the frog being only a delicate test of the presence of electric influence.

CAROLINE.

I suppose, then, the saliva of the mouth answers the same purpose as the moisture of the frog, in exciting the electricity of the pieces of silver and zinc with which Emily tried the experiment on her tongue.

MRS. B.

Precisely. It does not appear, however, necessary that the fluid used for this purpose should be of an animal nature. Water, and acids very much diluted by water, are found to be the most effectual in promoting the developement of electricity in metals; and, accordingly, the original apparatus which Volta first constructed for this purpose, consisted of a pile or succession of plates of zinc and copper, each pair of which was connected by pieces of cloth or paper impregnated with water; and this instrument, from its original inconvenient structure and limited strength, has gradually arrived at its present state of power and improvement, such as is exhibited in the Voltaic battery. In this apparatus, a specimen of which you see before you (PLATE VI. fig. 1.), the plates of zinc and copper are soldered together in pairs, each pair being placed at regular distances in wooden troughs and the interstices being filled with fluid.



CAROLINE.

Though you will not allow us to enquire into the precise cause of electricity, may we not ask in what manner the fluid acts on the metals so as to produce it?

MRS. B.

The action of the fluid on the metals, whether water or acid be used, is entirely of a chemical nature. But whether electricity is excited by this chemical action, or whether it is produced by the contact of the two metals, is a point upon which philosophers do not yet perfectly agree.

EMILY.

But can the mere contact of two metals, without any intervening fluid, produce electricity?

MRS. B.

Yes, if they are afterwards separated. It is an established fact, that when two metals are put in contact, and afterwards separated, that which has the strongest attraction for oxygen exhibits signs of positive, the other of negative electricity.

CAROLINE.

It seems then but reasonable to infer that the power of the Voltaic battery should arise from the contact of the plates of zinc and copper.

MRS. B.

It is upon this principle that Volta and Sir H. Davy explain the phenomena of the pile; but notwithstanding these two great authorities, many philosophers entertain doubts on the truth of this theory. The principal difficulty which occurs in explaining the phenomena of the Voltaic battery on this principle, is, that two such plates show no signs of different states of electricity whilst in contact, but only on being separated after contact. Now in the Voltaic battery, those plates that are in contact always continue so, being soldered together: and they cannot therefore receive a succession of charges. Besides, if we consider the mere disturbance of the balance of electricity by the contact of the plates, as the sole cause of the production of Voltaic electricity, it remains to be explained how this disturbed balance becomes an inexhaustible source of electrical energy, capable of pouring forth a constant and copious supply of electrical fluid, though without any means of replenishing itself from other sources. This subject, it must be owned, is involved in too much obscurity to enable us to speak very decidedly in favour of any theory. But, in order to avoid perplexing you with different explanations, I shall confine myself to one which appears to me to be least encumbered with difficulties, and most likely to accord with truth.*

This theory supposes the electricity to be excited by the chemical action of the acid on the zinc; but you are yet such novices in chemistry, that I think it will be necessary to give you some previous explanation of the nature of this action.

All metals have a strong attraction for oxygen, and this element is found in great abundance both in water and in acids. The action of the diluted acid on the zinc consists therefore in its oxygen combining with it, and dissolving its surface.

[Footnote *: This mode of explaining the phenomena of the Voltaic pile is called the chemical theory of electricity, because it ascribes the cause of these phenomena to certain chemical changes which take place during their appearance. In the preceding edition of this work, the same theory was presented in a more elaborate, but less easy form than it is in this. The mode of viewing the subject which is here sketched was long since suggested by Dr. Bostock, of whose theory, however, this is by no means to be considered as a complete statement.]

CAROLINE.

In the same manner I suppose as we saw an acid dissolve copper?

MRS. B.

Yes; but in the Voltaic battery the diluted acid is not strong enough to produce so complete an effect; it acts only on the surface of the zinc, to which it yields its oxygen, forming upon it a film or crust, which is a compound of the oxygen and the metal.

EMILY.

Since there is so strong a chemical attraction between oxygen and metals, I suppose they are naturally in different states of electricity?

MRS. B.

Yes; it appears that all metals are united with the positive, and that oxygen is the grand source of the negative electricity.

CAROLINE.

Does not then the acid act on the plates of copper, as well as on those of zinc?

MRS. B.

No; for though copper has an affinity for oxygen, it is less strong than that of zinc; and therefore the energy of the acid is only exerted upon the zinc.

It will be best, I believe, in order to render the action of the Voltaic battery more intelligible, to confine our attention at first to the effect produced on two plates only. (PLATE VI. fig. 2.)

If a plate of zinc be placed opposite to one of copper, or any other metal less attractive of oxygen, and the space between them (suppose of half an inch in thickness), be filled with an acid or any fluid capable of oxydating the zinc, the oxydated surface will have its capacity for electricity diminished, so that a quantity of electricity will be evolved from that surface. This electricity will be received by the contiguous fluid, by which it will be transmitted to the opposite metallic surface, the copper, which is not oxydated, and is therefore disposed to receive it; so that the copper plate will thus become positive, whilst the zinc plate will be in the negative state.

This evolution of electrical fluid however will be very limited; for as these two plates admit of but very little accumulation of electricity, and are supposed to have no communication with other bodies, the action of the acid, and further developement of electricity, will be immediately stopped.

EMILY.

This action, I suppose, can no more continue to go on, than that of a common electrical machine, which is not allowed to communicate with other bodies?

MRS. B.

Precisely; the common electrical machine, when excited by the friction of the rubber, gives out both the positive and negative electricities.— (PLATE VI. Fig. 3.) The positive, by the rotation of the glass cylinder, is conveyed into the conductor, whilst the negative goes into the rubber. But unless there is a communication made between the rubber and the ground, but a very inconsiderable quantity of electricity can be excited; for the rubber, like the plates of the battery, has too small a capacity to admit of an accumulation of electricity. Unless therefore the electricity can pass out of the rubber, it will not continue to go into it, and consequently no additional accumulation will take place. Now as one kind of electricity cannot be given out without the other, the developement of the positive electricity is stopped as well as that of the negative, and the conductor therefore cannot receive a succession of charges.

CAROLINE.

But does not the conductor, as well as the rubber, require a communication with the earth, in order to get rid of its electricity?

MRS. B.

No; for it is susceptible of receiving and containing a considerable quantity of electricity, as it is much larger than the rubber, and therefore has a greater capacity; and this continued accumulation of electricity in the conductor is what is called a charge.

EMILY.

But when an electrical machine is furnished with two conductors to receive the two electricities, I suppose no communication with the earth is required?

MRS. B.

Certainly not, until the two are fully charged; for the two conductors will receive equal quantities of electricity.

CAROLINE.

I thought the use of the chain had been to convey the electricity from the ground into the machine?

MRS. B.

That was the idea of Dr. Franklin, who supposed that there was but one kind of electricity, and who, by the terms positive and negative (which he first introduced), meant only different quantities of the same kind of electricity. The chain was in that case supposed to convey electricity from the ground through the rubber into the conductor. But as we have adopted the hypothesis of two electricities, we must consider the chain as a vehicle to conduct the negative electricity into the earth.

EMILY.

And are both kinds of electricity produced whenever electricity is excited?

MRS. B.

Yes, invariably. If you rub a tube of glass with a woollen cloth, the glass becomes positive, and the cloth negative. If, on the contrary, you excite a stick of sealing-wax by the same means, it is the rubber which becomes positive, and the wax negative.

But with regard to the Voltaic battery, in order that the acid may act freely on the zinc, and the two electricities be given out without interruption, some method must be devised, by which the plates may part with their electricities as fast as they receive them. —Can you think of any means by which this might be effected?

EMILY.

Would not two chains or wires, suspended from either plate to the ground, conduct the electricities into the earth, and thus answer the purpose?

MRS. B.

It would answer the purpose of carrying off the electricity, I admit; but recollect, that though it is necessary to find a vent for the electricity, yet we must not lose it, since it is the power which we are endeavouring to obtain. Instead, therefore, of conducting it into the ground, let us make the wires, from either plate, meet: the two electricities will thus be brought together, and will combine and neutralize each other; and as long as this communication continues, the two plates having a vent for their respective electricities, the action of the acid will go on freely and uninterruptedly.

EMILY.

That is very clear, so far as two plates only are concerned; but I cannot say I understand how the energy of the succession of plates, or rather pairs of plates, of which the Galvanic trough is composed, is propagated and accumulated throughout a battery?

MRS. B.

In order to shew you how the intensity of the electricity is increased by increasing the number of plates, we will examine the action of four plates; if you understand these, you will readily comprehend that of any number whatever. In this figure (PLATE VI. Fig. 4.), you will observe that the two central plates are united; they are soldered together, (as we observed in describing the Voltaic trough,) so as to form but one plate which offers two different surfaces, the one of copper, the other of zinc.

Now you recollect that, in explaining the action of two plates, we supposed that a quantity of electricity was evolved from the surface of the first zinc plate, in consequence of the action of the acid, and was conveyed by the interposed fluid to the copper plate, No. 2, which thus became positive. This copper plate communicates its electricity to the contiguous zinc plate, No. 3, in which, consequently, some accumulation of electricity takes place. When, therefore, the fluid in the next cell acts upon the zinc plate, electricity is extricated from it in larger quantity, and in a more concentrated form, than before. This concentrated electricity is again conveyed by the fluid to the next pair of plates, No. 4 and 5, when it is farther increased by the action of the fluid in the third cell, and so on, to any number of plates of which the battery may consist; so that the electrical energy will continue to accumulate in proportion to the number of double plates, the first zinc plate of the series being the most negative, and the last copper plate the most positive.

CAROLINE.

But does the battery become more and more strongly charged, merely by being allowed to stand undisturbed?

MRS. B.

No, for the action will soon stop, as was explained before, unless a vent be given to the accumulated electricities. This is easily done, however, by establishing a communication by means of the wires (Fig. 1.), between the two ends of the battery: these being brought into contact, the two electricities meet and neutralize each other, producing the shock and other effects of electricity; and the action goes on with renewed energy, being no longer obstructed by the accumulation of the two electricities which impeded its progress.

EMILY.

Is it the union of the two electricities which produces the electric spark?

MRS. B.

Yes; and it is, I believe, this circumstance which gave rise to Sir H. Davy's opinion that caloric may be a compound of the two electricities.

CAROLINE.

Yet surely caloric is very different from the electrical spark?

MRS. B.

The difference may consist probably only in intensity: for the heat of the electric spark is considerably more intense, though confined to a very minute spot, than any heat we can produce by other means.

EMILY.

Is it quite certain that the electricity of the Voltaic battery is precisely of the same nature as that of the common electrical machine?

MRS. B.

Undoubtedly; the shock given to the human body, the spark, the circumstance of the same substances which are conductors of the one being also conductors of the other, and of those bodies, such as glass and sealing-wax, which are non-conductors of the one, being also non-conductors of the other, are striking proofs of it. Besides, Sir H. Davy has shewn in his Lectures, that a Leyden jar, and a common electric battery, can be charged with electricity obtained from a Voltaic battery, the effect produced being perfectly similar to that obtained by a common machine.

Dr. Wollaston has likewise proved that similar chemical decompositions are effected by the electric machine and by the Voltaic battery; and has made other experiments which render it highly probable, that the origin of both electricities is essentially the same, as they show that the rubber of the common electrical machine, like the zinc in the Voltaic battery, produces the two electricities by combining with oxygen.

CAROLINE.

But I do not see whence the rubber obtains oxygen, for there is neither acid nor water used in the common machine, and I always understood that the electricity was excited by the friction.

MRS. B.

It appears that by friction the rubber obtains oxygen from the atmosphere, which is partly composed of that element. The oxygen combines with the amalgam of the rubber, which is of a metallic nature, much in the same way as the oxygen of the acid combines with the zinc in the Voltaic battery, and it is thus that the two electricities are disengaged.

CAROLINE.

But, if the electricities of both machines are similar, why not use the common machine for chemical decompositions?

MRS. B.

Though its effects are similar to those of the Voltaic battery, they are incomparably weaker. Indeed Dr. Wollaston, in using it for chemical decompositions, was obliged to act upon the most minute quantities of matter, and though the result was satisfactory in proving the similarity of its effects to those of the Voltaic battery, these effects were too small in extent to be in any considerable degree applicable to chemical decomposition.

CAROLINE.

How terrible, then, the shock must be from a Voltaic battery, since it is so much more powerful than an electrical machine!

MRS. B.

It is not nearly so formidable as you think; at least it is by no means proportional to the chemical effect. The great superiority of the Voltaic battery consists in the large quantity of electricity that passes; but in regard to the rapidity or intensity of the charge, it is greatly surpassed by the common electrical machine. It would seem that the shock or sensation depends chiefly upon the intensity; whilst, on the contrary, for chemical purposes, it is quantity which is required. In the Voltaic battery, the electricity, though copious, is so weak as not to be able to force its way through the fluid which separates the plates, whilst that of a common machine will pass through any space of water.

CAROLINE.

Would not it be possible to increase the intensity of the Voltaic battery till it should equal that of the common machine?

MRS. B.

It can actually be increased till it imitates a weak electrical machine, so as to produce a visible spark when accumulated in a Leyden jar. But it can never be raised sufficiently to pass through any considerable extent of air, because of the ready communication through the fluids employed.

By increasing the number of plates of a battery, you increase its intensity, whilst, by enlarging the dimensions of the plates, you augment its quantity; and, as the superiority of the battery over the common machine consists entirely in the quantity of electricity produced, it was at first supposed that it was the size, rather than the number of plates that was essential to the augmentation of power. It was, however, found upon trial, that the quantity of electricity produced by the Voltaic battery, even when of a very moderate size, was sufficiently copious, and that the chief advantage in this apparatus was obtained by increasing the intensity, which, however, still falls very short of that of the common machine.

I should not omit to mention, that a very splendid, and, at the same time, most powerful battery, was, a few years ago, constructed under the direction of Sir H. Davy, which he repeatedly exhibited in his course of electro-chemical lectures. It consists of two thousand double plates of zinc and copper, of six square inches in dimensions, arranged in troughs of Wedgwood-ware, each of which contains twenty of these plates. The troughs are furnished with a contrivance for lifting the plates out of them in a very convenient and expeditious manner.*

[Footnote *: A model of this mode of construction is exhibited in PLATE XIII. Fig. 1.]

CAROLINE.

Well, now that we understand the nature of the action of the Voltaic battery, I long to hear an account of the discoveries to which it has given rise.

MRS. B.

You must restrain your impatience, my dear, for I cannot with any propriety introduce the subject of these discoveries till we come to them in the regular course of our studies. But, as almost every substance in nature has already been exposed to the influence of the Voltaic battery, we shall very soon have occasion to notice its effects.



CONVERSATION VI.

ON OXYGEN AND NITROGEN.

MRS. B.

To-day we shall examine the chemical properties of the ATMOSPHERE.

CAROLINE.

I thought that we were first to learn the nature of OXYGEN, which come next in our table of simple bodies?

MRS. B.

And so you shall; the atmosphere being composed of two principles, OXYGEN and NITROGEN, we shall proceed to analyse it, and consider its component parts separately.

EMILY.

I always thought that the atmosphere had been a very complicated fluid, composed of all the variety of exhalations from the earth.

MRS. B.

Such substances may be considered rather as heterogeneous and accidental, than as forming any of its component parts; and the proportion they bear to the whole mass is quite inconsiderable.

ATMOSPHERICAL AIR is composed of two gasses, known by the names of OXYGEN GAS and NITROGEN or AZOTIC GAS.

EMILY.

Pray what is a gas?

MRS. B.

The name of gas is given to any fluid capable of existing constantly in an aeriform state, under the pressure and at the temperature of the atmosphere.

CAROLINE.

Is not water, or any other substance, when evaporated by heat, called gas?

MRS. B.

No, my dear; vapour is, indeed, an elastic fluid, and bears a strong resemblance to a gas; there are, however, several points in which they essentially differ, and by which you may always distinguish them. Steam, or vapour, owes its elasticity merely to a high temperature, which is equal to that of boiling water. And it differs from boiling water only by being united with more caloric, which, as we before explained, is in a latent state. When steam is cooled, it instantly returns to the form of water; but air, or gas, has never yet been rendered liquid or solid by any degree of cold.

EMILY.

But does not gas, as well as vapour, owe its elasticity to caloric?

MRS. B.

It was the prevailing opinion; and the difference of gas or vapour was thought to depend on the different manner in which caloric was united with the basis of these two kinds of elastic fluids. In vapour, it was considered as in a latent state; in gas, it was said to be chemically combined. But the late researches of Sir H. Davy have given rise to a new theory respecting gasses; and there is now reason to believe that these bodies owe their permanently elastic state, not solely to caloric, but likewise to the prevalence of either the one or the other of the two electricities.

EMILY.

When you speak, then, of the simple bodies oxygen and nitrogen, you mean to express those substances which are the basis of the two gasses?

MRS. B.

Yes, in strict propriety, for they can properly be called gasses only when brought to an aeriform state.

CAROLINE.

In what proportions are they combined in the atmosphere?

MRS. B.

The oxygen gas constitutes a little more than one-fifth, and the nitrogen gas a little less than four-fifths. When separated, they are found to possess qualities totally different from each other. For oxygen gas is essential both to respiration and combustion, while neither of these processes can be performed in nitrogen gas.

CAROLINE.

But if nitrogen gas is unfit for respiration, how does it happen that the large proportion of it which enters into the composition of the atmosphere is not a great impediment to breathing?

MRS. B.

We should breathe more freely than our lungs could bear, if we respired oxygen gas alone. The nitrogen is no impediment to respiration, and probably, on the contrary, answers some useful purpose, though we do not know in what manner it acts in that process.

EMILY.

And by what means can the two gasses, which compose the atmospheric air, be separated?

MRS. B.

There are many ways of analysing the atmosphere: the two gasses may be separated first by combustion.

EMILY.

You surprise me! how is it possible that combustion should separate them?

MRS. B.

I should previously remind you that oxygen is supposed to be the only simple body naturally combined with negative electricity. In all the other elements the positive electricity prevails, and they have consequently, all of them, an attraction for oxygen.*

[Footnote *: If chlorine or oxymuriatic gas be a simple body, according to Sir H. Davy's view of the subject, it must be considered as an exception to this statement; but this subject cannot be discussed till the properties and nature of chlorine come under examination.]

CAROLINE.

Oxygen the only negatively electrified body! that surprises me extremely; how then are the combinations of the other bodies performed, if, according to your explanation of chemical attraction, bodies are supposed only to combine in virtue of their opposite states of electricity?

MRS. B.

Observe that I said, that oxygen was the only simple body, naturally negative. Compound bodies, in which oxygen prevails over the other component parts, are also negative, but their negative energy is greater or less in proportion as the oxygen predominates. Those compounds into which oxygen enters in less proportion than the other constituents, are positive, but their positive energy is diminished in proportion to the quantity of oxygen which enters into their composition.

All bodies, therefore, that are not already combined with oxygen, will attract it, and, under certain circumstances, will absorb it from the atmosphere, in which case the nitrogen gas will remain alone, and may thus be obtained in its separate state.

CAROLINE.

I do not understand how a gas can be absorbed?

MRS. B.

It is only the oxygen, or basis of the gas, which is absorbed; and the two electricities escaping, that is to say, the negative from the oxygen, the positive from the burning body, unite and produce caloric.

EMILY.

And what becomes of this caloric?

MRS. B.

We shall make this piece of dry wood attract oxygen from the atmosphere, and you will see what becomes of the caloric.

CAROLINE.

You are joking, Mrs. B—; you do not mean to decompose the atmosphere with a piece of dry stick?

MRS. B.

Not the whole body of the atmosphere, certainly; but if we can make this piece of wood attract any quantity of oxygen from it, a proportional quantity of atmospherical air will be decomposed.

CAROLINE.

If wood has so strong an attraction for oxygen, why does it not decompose the atmosphere spontaneously?

MRS. B.

It is found by experience, that an elevation of temperature is required for the commencement of the union of the oxygen and the wood.

This elevation of temperature was formerly thought to be necessary, in order to diminish the cohesive attraction of the wood, and enable the oxygen to penetrate and combine with it more readily. But since the introduction of the new theory of chemical combination, another cause has been assigned, and it is now supposed that the high temperature, by exalting the electrical energies of bodies, and consequently their force of attraction, facilitates their combination.

EMILY.

If it is true, that caloric is composed of the two electricities, an elevation of temperature must necessarily augment the electric energies of bodies.

MRS. B.

I doubt whether that would be a necessary consequence; for, admitting this composition of caloric, it is only by its being decomposed that electricity can be produced. Sir H. Davy, however, in his numerous experiments, has found it to be an almost invariable rule that the electrical energies of bodies are increased by elevation of temperature.

What means then shall we employ to raise the temperature of the wood, so as to enable it to attract oxygen from the atmosphere?

CAROLINE.

Holding it near the fire, I should think, would answer the purpose.

MRS. B.

It may, provided you hold it sufficiently close to the fire; for a very considerable elevation of temperature is required.

CAROLINE.

It has actually taken fire, and yet I did not let it touch the coals, but I held it so very close that I suppose it caught fire merely from the intensity of the heat.

MRS. B.

Or you might say, in other words, that the caloric which the wood imbibed, so much elevated its temperature, and exalted its electric energy, as to enable it to attract oxygen very rapidly from the atmosphere.

EMILY.

Does the wood absorb oxygen while it is burning?

MRS. B.

Yes, and the heat and light are produced by the union of the two electricities which are set at liberty, in consequence of the oxygen combining with the wood.

CAROLINE.

You astonish me! the heat of a burning body proceeds then as much from the atmosphere as from the body itself?

MRS. B.

It was supposed that the caloric, given out during combustion, proceeded entirely, or nearly so, from the decomposition of the oxygen gas; but, according to Sir H. Davy's new view of the subject, both the oxygen gas, and the combustible body, concur in supplying the heat and light, by the union of their opposite electricities.

EMILY.

I have not yet met with any thing in chemistry that has surprised or delighted me so much as this explanation of combustion. I was at first wondering what connection there could be between the affinity of a body for oxygen and its combustibility; but I think I understand it now perfectly.

MRS. B.

Combustion then, you see, is nothing more than the rapid combination of a body with oxygen, attended by the disengagement of light and heat.

EMILY.

But are there no combustible bodies whose attraction for oxygen is so strong, that they will combine with it, without the application of heat?

CAROLINE.

That cannot be; otherwise we should see bodies burning spontaneously.

MRS. B.

But there are some instances of this kind, such as phosphorus, potassium, and some compound bodies, which I shall hereafter make you acquainted with. These bodies, however, are prepared by art, for in general, all the combustions that could occur spontaneously, at the temperature of the atmosphere, have already taken place; therefore new combustions cannot happen without the temperature of the body being raised. Some bodies, however, will burn at a much lower temperature than others.

CAROLINE.

But the common way of burning a body is not merely to approach it to one already on fire, but rather to put the one in actual contact with the other, as when I burn this piece of paper by holding it in the flame of the fire.

MRS. B.

The closer it is in contact with the source of caloric, the sooner will its temperature be raised to the degree necessary for it to burn. If you hold it near the fire, the same effect will be produced; but more time will be required, as you found to be the case with the piece of stick.

EMILY.

But why is it not necessary to continue applying caloric throughout the process of combustion, in order to keep up the electric energy of the wood, which is required to enable it to combine with the oxygen?

MRS. B.

The caloric which is gradually produced by the two electricities during combustion, keeps up the temperature of the burning body; so that when once combustion has begun, no further application of caloric is required.

CAROLINE.

Since I have learnt this wonderful theory of combustion, I cannot take my eyes from the fire; and I can scarcely conceive that the heat and light, which I always supposed to proceed entirely from the coals, are really produced as much by the atmosphere.

EMILY.

When you blow the fire, you increase the combustion, I suppose, by supplying the coals with a greater quantity of oxygen gas?

MRS. B.

Certainly; but of course no blowing will produce combustion, unless the temperature of the coals be first raised. A single spark, however, is sometimes sufficient to produce that effect; for, as I said before, when once combustion has commenced, the caloric disengaged is sufficient to elevate the temperature of the rest of the body, provided that there be a free access of oxygen. It however sometimes happens that if a fire be ill made, it will be extinguished before all the fuel is consumed, from the very circumstance of the combustion being so slow that the caloric disengaged is insufficient to keep up the temperature of the fuel. You must recollect that there are three things required in order to produce combustion; a combustible body, oxygen, and a temperature at which the one will combine with the other.

EMILY.

You said that combustion was one method of decomposing the atmosphere, and obtaining the nitrogen gas in its simple state; but how do you secure this gas, and prevent it from mixing with the rest of the atmosphere?

MRS. B.

It is necessary for this purpose to burn the body within a close vessel, which is easily done. —We shall introduce a small lighted taper (PLATE VII. Fig. 1.) under this glass receiver, which stands in a bason over water, to prevent all communication with the external air.



CAROLINE.

How dim the light burns already! —It is now extinguished.

MRS. B.

Can you tell us why it is extinguished?

CAROLINE.

Let me consider. —The receiver was full of atmospherical air; the taper, in burning within it, must have combined with the oxygen contained in that air, and the caloric that was disengaged produced the light of the taper. But when the whole of the oxygen was absorbed, the whole of its electricity was disengaged; consequently no more caloric could be produced, the taper ceased to burn, and the flame was extinguished.

MRS. B.

Your explanation is perfectly correct.

EMILY.

The two constituents of the oxygen gas being thus disposed of, what remains under the receiver must be pure nitrogen gas?

MRS. B.

There are some circumstances which prevent the nitrogen gas, thus obtained, from being perfectly pure; but we may easily try whether the oxygen has disappeared, by putting another lighted taper under it. —You see how instantaneously the flame is extinguished, for want of oxygen to supply the negative electricity required for the formation of caloric; and were you to put an animal under the receiver, it would immediately be suffocated. But that is an experiment which I do not think your curiosity will tempt you to try.

EMILY.

Certainly not. —But look, Mrs. B., the receiver is full of a thick white smoke. Is that nitrogen gas?

MRS. B.

No, my dear; nitrogen gas is perfectly transparent and invisible, like common air. This cloudiness proceeds from a variety of exhalations, which arise from the burning taper, and the nature of which you cannot yet understand.

CAROLINE.

The water within the receiver has now risen a little above its level in the bason. What is the reason of this?

MRS. B.

With a moment's reflection, I dare say, you would have explained it yourself. The water rises in consequence of the oxygen gas within it having been destroyed, or rather decomposed, by the combustion of the taper.

CAROLINE.

Then why did not the water rise immediately when the oxygen gas was destroyed?

MRS. B.

Because the heat of the taper, whilst burning, produced a dilatation of the air in the vessel, which at first counteracted this effect.

Another means of decomposing the atmosphere is the oxygenation of certain metals. This process is very analogous to combustion; it is, indeed, only a more general term to express the combination of a body with oxygen.

CAROLINE.

In what respect, then, does it differ from combustion?

MRS. B.

The combination of oxygen in combustion is always accompanied by a disengagement of light and heat; whilst this circumstance is not a necessary consequence of simple oxygenation.

CAROLINE.

But how can a body absorb oxygen without the combination of the two electricities which produce caloric?

MRS. B.

Oxygen does not always present itself in a gaseous state; it is a constituent part of a vast number of bodies, both solid and liquid, in which it exists in a much denser state than in the atmosphere; and from these bodies it may be obtained without much disengagement of caloric. It may likewise, in some cases, be absorbed from the atmosphere without any sensible production of light and heat; for, if the process be slow, the caloric is disengaged in such small quantities, and so gradually, that it is not capable of producing either light or heat. In this case the absorption of oxygen is called oxygenation or oxydation, instead of combustion, as the production of sensible light and heat is essential to the latter.

EMILY.

I wonder that metals can unite with oxygen; for, as they are so dense, their attraction of aggregation must be very great; and I should have thought that oxygen could never have penetrated such bodies.

MRS. B.

Their strong attraction for oxygen counterbalances this obstacle. Most metals, however, require to be made red-hot before they are capable of attracting oxygen in any considerable quantity. By this combination they lose most of their metallic properties, and fall into a kind of powder, formerly called calx, but now much more properly termed an oxyd; thus we have oxyd of lead, oxyd of iron, &c.

EMILY.

And in the Voltaic battery, it is, I suppose, an oxyd of zinc, that is formed by the union of the oxygen with that metal?

MRS. B.

Yes, it is.

CAROLINE.

The word oxyd, then, simply means a metal combined with oxygen?

MRS. B.

Yes; but the term is not confined to metals, though chiefly applied to them. Any body whatever, that has combined with a certain quantity of oxygen, either by means of oxydation or combustion, is called an oxyd, and is said to be oxydated or oxygenated.

EMILY.

Metals, when converted into oxyds, become, I suppose, negative?

MRS. B.

Not in general; because in most oxyds the positive energy of the metal more than counterbalances the native energy of the oxygen with which it combines.

This black powder is an oxyd of manganese, a metal which has so strong an affinity for oxygen, that it attracts that substance from the atmosphere at any known temperature: it is therefore never found in its metallic form, but always in that of an oxyd, in which state, you see, it has very little of the appearance of a metal. It is now heavier than it was before oxydation, in consequence of the additional weight of the oxygen with which it has combined.

CAROLINE.

I am very glad to hear that; for I confess I could not help having some doubts whether oxygen was really a substance, as it is not to be obtained in a simple and palpable state; but its weight is, I think, a decisive proof of its being a real body.

MRS. B.

It is easy to estimate its weight, by separating it from the manganese, and finding how much the latter has lost.

EMILY.

But if you can take the oxygen from the metal, shall we not then have it in its palpable simple state?

MRS. B.

No; for I can only separate the oxygen from the manganese, by presenting to it some other body, for which it has a greater affinity than for the manganese. Caloric affording the two electricities is decomposed, and one of them uniting with the oxygen, restores it to the aeriform state.

EMILY.

But you said just now, that manganese would attract oxygen from the atmosphere in which it is combined with the negative electricity; how, therefore, can the oxygen have a superior affinity for that electricity, since it abandons it to combine with the manganese?

MRS. B.

I give you credit for this objection, Emily; and the only answer I can make to it is, that the mutual affinities of metals for oxygen, and of oxygen for electricity, vary at different temperatures; a certain degree of heat will, therefore, dispose a metal to combine with oxygen, whilst, on the contrary, the former will be compelled to part with the latter, when the temperature is further increased. I have put some oxyd of manganese into a retort, which is an earthen vessel with a bent neck, such as you see here. (PLATE VII. Fig. 2.) —The retort containing the manganese you cannot see, as I have enclosed it in this furnace, where it is now red-hot. But, in order to make you sensible of the escape of the gas, which is itself invisible, I have connected the neck of the retort with this bent tube, the extremity of which is immersed in this vessel of water. (PLATE VII. Fig. 3.) —Do you see the bubbles of air rise through the water?

CAROLINE.

Perfectly. This, then, is pure oxygen gas; what a pity it should be lost! Could you not preserve it?

MRS. B.

We shall collect it in this receiver. —For this purpose, you observe, I first fill it with water, in order to exclude the atmospherical air; and then place it over the bubbles that issue from the retort, so as to make them rise through the water to the upper part of the receiver.

EMILY.

The bubbles of oxygen gas rise, I suppose, from their specific levity?

MRS. B.

Yes; for though oxygen forms rather a heavy gas, it is light compared to water. You see how it gradually displaces the water from the receiver. It is now full of gas, and I may leave it inverted in water on this shelf, where I can keep the gas as long as I choose, for future experiments. This apparatus (which is indispensable in all experiments in which gases are concerned) is called a water-bath.

CAROLINE.

It is a very clever contrivance, indeed; equally simple and useful. How convenient the shelf is for the receiver to rest upon under water, and the holes in it for the gas to pass into the receiver! I long to make some experiments with this apparatus.

MRS. B.

I shall try your skill that way, when you have a little more experience. I am now going to show you an experiment, which proves, in a very striking manner, how essential oxygen is to combustion. You will see that iron itself will burn in this gas, in the most rapid and brilliant manner.

CAROLINE.

Really! I did not know that it was possible to burn iron.

EMILY.

Iron is a simple body, and you know, Caroline, that all simple bodies are naturally positive, and therefore must have an affinity for oxygen.

MRS. B.

Iron will, however, not burn in atmospherical air without a very great elevation of temperature; but it is eminently combustible in pure oxygen gas; and what will surprise you still more, it can be set on fire without any considerable rise of temperature. You see this spiral iron wire—I fasten it at one end to this cork, which is made to fit an opening at the top of the glass-receiver. (PLATE VII. Fig. 4.)

EMILY.

I see the opening in the receiver; but it is carefully closed by a ground glass-stopper.

MRS. B.

That is in order to prevent the gas from escaping; but I shall take out the stopper, and put in the cork, to which the wire hangs. —Now I mean to burn this wire in the oxygen gas, but I must fix a small piece of lighted tinder to the extremity of it, in order to give the first impulse to combustion; for, however powerful oxygen is in promoting combustion, you must recollect that it cannot take place without some elevation of temperature. I shall now introduce the wire into the receiver, by quickly changing the stoppers.

CAROLINE.

Is there no danger of the gas escaping while you change the stoppers?

MRS. B.

Oxygen gas is a little heavier than atmospherical air, therefore it will not mix with it very rapidly; and, if I do not leave the opening uncovered, we shall not lose any——

CAROLINE.

Oh, what a brilliant and beautiful flame!

EMILY.

It is as white and dazzling as the sun! —Now a piece of the melted wire drops to the bottom: I fear it is extinguished; but no, it burns again as bright as ever.

MRS. B.

It will burn till the wire is entirely consumed, provided the oxygen is not first expended: for you know it can burn only while there is oxygen to combine with it.

CAROLINE.

I never saw a more beautiful light. My eyes can hardly bear it! How astonishing to think that all this caloric was contained in the small quantity of gas and iron that was enclosed in the receiver; and that, without producing any sensible heat!

CAROLINE.

How wonderfully quick combustion goes on in pure oxygen gas! But pray, are these drops of burnt iron as heavy as the wire was before?

MRS. B.

They are even heavier; for the iron, in burning, has acquired exactly the weight of the oxygen which has disappeared, and is now combined with it. It has become an oxyd of iron.

CAROLINE.

I do not know what you mean by saying that the oxygen has disappeared, Mrs. B., for it was always invisible.

MRS. B.

True, my dear; the expression was incorrect. But though you could not see the oxygen gas, I believe you had no doubt of its presence, as the effect it produced on the wire was sufficiently evident.

CAROLINE.

Yes, indeed; yet you know it was the caloric, and not the oxygen gas itself, that dazzled us so much.

MRS. B.

You are not quite correct in your turn, in saying the caloric dazzled you; for caloric is invisible; it affects only the sense of feeling; it was the light which dazzled you.

CAROLINE.

True; but light and caloric are such constant companions, that it is difficult to separate them, even in idea.

MRS. B.

The easier it is to confound them, the more careful you should be in making the distinction.

CAROLINE.

But why has the water now risen, and filled part of the receiver?

MRS. B.

Indeed, Caroline, I did not suppose you would have asked such a question! I dare say, Emily, you can answer it.

EMILY.

Let me reflect . . . . . . The oxygen has combined with the wire; the caloric has escaped; consequently nothing can remain in the receiver, and the water will rise to fill the vacuum.

CAROLINE.

I wonder that I did not think of that. I wish that we had weighed the wire and the oxygen gas before combustion; we might then have found whether the weight of the oxyd was equal to that of both.

MRS. B.

You might try the experiment if you particularly wished it; but I can assure you, that, if accurately performed, it never fails to show that the additional weight of the oxyd is precisely equal to that of the oxygen absorbed, whether the process has been a real combustion, or a simple oxygenation.

CAROLINE.

But this cannot be the case with combustions in general; for when any substance is burnt in the common air, so far from increasing in weight, it is evidently diminished, and sometimes entirely consumed.

MRS. B.

But what do you mean by the expression consumed? You cannot suppose that the smallest particle of any substance in nature can be actually destroyed. A compound body is decomposed by combustion; some of its constituent parts fly off in a gaseous form, while others remain in a concrete state; the former are called the volatile, the latter the fixed products of combustion. But if we collect the whole of them, we shall always find that they exceed the weight of the combustible body, by that of the oxygen which has combined with them during combustion.

EMILY.

In the combustion of a coal fire, then, I suppose that the ashes are what would be called the fixed product, and the smoke the volatile product?

MRS. B.

Yet when the fire burns best, and the quantity of volatile products should be the greatest, there is no smoke; how can you account for that?

EMILY.

Indeed I cannot; therefore I suppose that I was not right in my conjecture.

MRS. B.

Not quite: ashes, as you supposed, are a fixed product of combustion; but smoke, properly speaking, is not one of the volatile products, as it consists of some minute undecomposed particles of the coals that are carried off by the heated air without being burnt, and are either deposited in the form of soot, or dispersed by the wind. Smoke, therefore, ultimately, becomes one of the fixed products of combustion. And you may easily conceive that the stronger the fire is, the less smoke is produced, because the fewer particles escape combustion. On this principle depends the invention of Argand's Patent Lamps; a current of air is made to pass through the cylindrical wick of the lamp, by which means it is so plentifully supplied with oxygen, that scarcely a particle of oil escapes combustion, nor is there any smoke produced.

EMILY.

But what then are the volatile products of combustion?

MRS. B.

Various new compounds, with which you are not yet acquainted, and which being converted by caloric either into vapour or gas, are invisible; but they can be collected, and we shall examine them at some future period.

CAROLINE.

There are then other gases, besides the oxygen and nitrogen gases.

MRS. B.

Yes, several: any substance that can assume and maintain the form of an elastic fluid at the temperature of the atmosphere, is called a gas. We shall examine the several gases in their respective places; but we must now confine our attention to those that compose the atmosphere.

I shall show you another method of decomposing the atmosphere, which is very simple. In breathing, we retain a portion of the oxygen, and expire the nitrogen gas; so that if we breathe in a closed vessel, for a certain length of time, the air within it will be deprived of its oxygen gas. Which of you will make the experiment?

CAROLINE.

I should be very glad to try it.

MRS. B.

Very well; breathe several times through this glass tube into the receiver with which it is connected, until you feel that your breath is exhausted.

CAROLINE.

I am quite out of breath already!

MRS. B.

Now let us try the gas with a lighted taper.

EMILY.

It is very pure nitrogen gas, for the taper is immediately extinguished.

MRS. B.

That is not a proof of its being pure, but only of the absence of oxygen, as it is that principle alone which can produce combustion, every other gas being absolutely incapable of it.

EMILY.

In the methods which you have shown us, for decomposing the atmosphere, the oxygen always abandons the nitrogen; but is there no way of taking the nitrogen from the oxygen, so as to obtain the latter pure from the atmosphere?

MRS. B.

You must observe, that whenever oxygen is taken from the atmosphere, it is by decomposing the oxygen gas; we cannot do the same with the nitrogen gas, because nitrogen has a stronger affinity for caloric than for any other known principle: it appears impossible therefore to separate it from the atmosphere by the power of affinities. But if we cannot obtain the oxygen gas, by this means, in its separate state, we have no difficulty (as you have seen) to procure it in its gaseous form, by taking it from those substances that have absorbed it from the atmosphere, as we did with the oxyd of manganese.

EMILY.

Can atmospherical air be recomposed, by mixing due proportions of oxygen and nitrogen gases?

MRS. B.

Yes: if about one part of oxygen gas be mixed with about four parts of nitrogen gas, atmospherical air is produced.*

[Footnote *: The proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere varies from 21 to 22 per cent.]

EMILY.

The air, then, must be an oxyd of nitrogen?

MRS. B.

No, my dear; for there must be a chemical combination between oxygen and nitrogen in order to produce an oxyd; whilst in the atmosphere these two substances are separately combined with caloric, forming two distinct gases, which are simply mixed in the formation of the atmosphere.

I shall say nothing more of oxygen and nitrogen at present, as we shall continually have occasion to refer to them in our future conversations. They are both very abundant in nature; nitrogen is the most plentiful in the atmosphere, and exists also in all animal substances; oxygen forms a constituent part, both of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, from which it may be obtained by a variety of chemical means. But it is now time to conclude our lesson. I am afraid you have learnt more to-day than you will be able to remember.

CAROLINE.

I assure you that I have been too much interested in it, ever to forget it. In regard to nitrogen there seems to be but little to remember; it makes a very insignificant figure in comparison to oxygen, although it composes a much larger portion of the atmosphere.

MRS. B.

Perhaps this insignificance you complain of may arise from the compound nature of nitrogen, for though I have hitherto considered it as a simple body, because it is not known in any natural process to be decomposed, yet from some experiments of Sir H. Davy, there appears to be reason for suspecting that nitrogen is a compound body, as we shall see afterwards. But even in its simple state, it will not appear so insignificant when you are better acquainted with it; for though it seems to perform but a passive part in the atmosphere, and has no very striking properties, when considered in its separate state, yet you will see by-and-bye what a very important agent it becomes, when combined with other bodies. But no more of this at present; we must reserve it for its proper place.



CONVERSATION VII.

ON HYDROGEN.

CAROLINE.

The next simple bodies we come to are CHLORINE and IODINE. Pray what kinds of substances are these; are they also invisible?

MRS. B.

No; for chlorine, in the state of gas, has a distinct greenish colour, and is therefore visible; and iodine, in the same state, has a beautiful claret-red colour. The knowledge of these two bodies, however, and the explanation of their properties, imply various considerations, which you would not yet be able to understand; we shall therefore defer their examination to some future conversation, and we shall pass on to the next simple substance, HYDROGEN, which we cannot, any more than oxygen, obtain in a visible or palpable form. We are acquainted with it only in its gaseous state, as we are with oxygen and nitrogen.

CAROLINE.

But in its gaseous state it cannot be called a simple substance, since it is combined with heat and electricity?

MRS. B.

True, my dear; but as we do not know in nature of any substance which is not more or less combined with caloric and electricity, we are apt to say that a substance is in its pure state when combined with those agents only.

Hydrogen was formerly called inflammable air, as it is extremely combustible, and burns with a great flame. Since the invention of the new nomenclature, it has obtained the name of hydrogen, which is derived from two Greek words, the meaning of which is, to produce water.

EMILY.

And how does hydrogen produce water?

MRS. B.

By its combustion. Water is composed of eighty-five parts, by weight, of oxygen, combined with fifteen parts of hydrogen; or of two parts, by bulk of hydrogen gas, to one part of oxygen gas.

CAROLINE.

Really! is it possible that water should be a combination of two gases, and that one of these should be inflammable air! Hydrogen must be a most extraordinary gas that will produce both fire and water.

EMILY.

But I thought you said that combustion could take place in no gas but oxygen?

MRS. B.

Do you recollect what the process of combustion consists in?

EMILY.

In the combination of a body with oxygen, with disengagement of light and heat.

MRS. B.

Therefore when I say that hydrogen is combustible, I mean that it has an affinity for oxygen; but, like all other combustible substances, it cannot burn unless supplied with oxygen, and also heated to a proper temperature.

CAROLINE.

The simply mixing fifteen parts of hydrogen, with eighty-five parts of oxygen gas, will not, therefore, produce water?

MRS. B.

No; water being a much denser fluid than gases, in order to reduce these gases to a liquid, it is necessary to diminish the quantity of caloric or electricity which maintains them in an elastic form.

EMILY.

That I should think might be done by combining the oxygen and hydrogen together; for in combining they would give out their respective electricities in the form of caloric, and by this means would be condensed.

CAROLINE.

But you forget, Emily, that in order to make the oxygen and hydrogen combine, you must begin by elevating their temperature, which increases, instead of diminishing, their electric energies.

MRS. B.

Emily is, however, right; for though it is necessary to raise their temperature, in order to make them combine, as that combination affords them the means of parting with their electricities, it is eventually the cause of the diminution of electric energy.

CAROLINE.

You love to deal in paradoxes to-day, Mrs. B. —Fire, then, produces water?

MRS. B.

The combustion of hydrogen gas certainly does; but you do not seem to have remembered the theory of combustion so well as you thought you would. Can you tell me what happens in the combustion of hydrogen gas?

CAROLINE.

The hydrogen combines with the oxygen, and their opposite electricities are disengaged in the form of caloric. —Yes, I think I understand it now—by the loss of this caloric, the gases are condensed into a liquid.

EMILY.

Water, then, I suppose, when it evaporates and incorporates with the atmosphere, is decomposed and converted into hydrogen and oxygen gases?

MRS. B.

No, my dear—there you are quite mistaken: the decomposition of water is totally different from its evaporation; for in the latter case (as you should recollect) water is only in a state of very minute division; and is merely suspended in the atmosphere, without any chemical combination, and without any separation of its constituent parts. As long as these remain combined, they form WATER, whether in a state of liquidity, or in that of an elastic fluid, as vapour, or under the solid form of ice.

In our experiments on latent heat, you may recollect that we caused water successively to pass through these three forms, merely by an increase or diminution of caloric, without employing any power of attraction, or effecting any decomposition.

CAROLINE.

But are there no means of decomposing water?

MRS. B.

Yes, several: charcoal, and metals, when heated red hot, will attract the oxygen from water, in the same manner as they will from the atmosphere.

CAROLINE.

Hydrogen, I see, is like nitrogen, a poor dependant friend of oxygen, which is continually forsaken for greater favourites.

MRS. B.

The connection, or friendship, as you choose to call it, is much more intimate between oxygen and hydrogen, in the state of water, than between oxygen and nitrogen, in the atmosphere; for, in the first case, there is a chemical union and condensation of the two substances; in the latter, they are simply mixed together in their gaseous state. You will find, however, that, in some cases, nitrogen is quite as intimately connected with oxygen, as hydrogen is. —But this is foreign to our present subject.

EMILY.

Water, then, is an oxyd, though the atmospherical air is not?

MRS. B.

It is not commonly called an oxyd, though, according to our definition, it may, no doubt, be referred to that class of bodies.

CAROLINE.

I should like extremely to see water decomposed.

MRS. B.

I can gratify your curiosity by a much more easy process than the oxydation of charcoal or metals: the decomposition of water by these latter means takes up a great deal of time, and is attended with much trouble; for it is necessary that the charcoal or metal should be made red hot in a furnace, that the water should pass over them in a state of vapour, that the gas formed should be collected over the water-bath, &c. In short, it is a very complicated affair. But the same effect may be produced with the greatest facility, by the action of the Voltaic battery, which this will give me an opportunity of exhibiting.

CAROLINE.

I am very glad of that, for I longed to see the power of this apparatus in decomposing bodies.

MRS. B.

For this purpose I fill this piece of glass-tube (PLATE VIII. fig. 1.) with water, and cork it up at both ends; through one of the corks I introduce that wire of the battery which conveys the positive electricity; and the wire which conveys the negative electricity is made to pass through the other cork, so that the two wires approach each other sufficiently near to give out their respective electricities.



CAROLINE.

It does not appear to me that you approach the wires so near as you did when you made the battery act by itself.

MRS. B.

Water being a better conductor of electricity than air, the two wires will act on each other at a greater distance in the former than in the latter.

EMILY.

Now the electrical effect appears: I see small bubbles of air emitted from each wire.

MRS. B.

Each wire decomposes the water, the positive by combining with its oxygen which is negative, the negative by combining with its hydrogen which is positive.

CAROLINE.

That is wonderfully curious! But what are the small bubbles of air?

MRS. B.

Those that appear to proceed from the positive wire, are the result of the decomposition of the water by that wire. That is to say, the positive electricity having combined with some of the oxygen of the water, the particles of hydrogen which were combined with that portion of oxygen are set at liberty, and appear in the form of small bubbles of gas or air.

EMILY.

And I suppose the negative fluid having in the same manner combined with some of the hydrogen of the water, the particles of oxygen that were combined with it, are set free, and emitted in a gaseous form.

MRS. B.

Precisely so. But I should not forget to observe, that the wires used in this experiment are made of platina, a metal which is not capable of combining with oxygen; for otherwise the wire would combine with the oxygen, and the hydrogen alone would be disengaged.

CAROLINE.

But could not water be decomposed without the electric circle being completed? If, for instance, you immersed only the positive wire in the water, would it not combine with the oxygen, and the hydrogen gas be given out?

MRS. B.

No; for as you may recollect, the battery cannot act unless the circle be completed; since the positive wire will not give out its electricity, unless attracted by that of the negative wire.

CAROLINE.

I understand it now. —But look, Mrs. B., the decomposition of the water which has now been going on for some time, does not sensibly diminish its quantity—what is the reason of that?

MRS. B.

Because the quantity decomposed is so extremely small. If you compare the density of water with that of the gases into which it is resolved, you must be aware that a single drop of water is sufficient to produce thousands of such small bubbles as those you now perceive.

CAROLINE.

But in this experiment, we obtain the oxygen and hydrogen gases mixed together. Is there any means of procuring the two gases separately?

MRS. B.

They can be collected separately with great ease, by modifying a little the experiment. Thus if instead of one tube, we employ two, as you see here, (c, d, PLATE VIII. fig. 2.) both tubes being closed at one end, and open at the other; and if after filling these tubes with water, we place them standing in a glass of water (e), with their open end downwards, you will see that the moment we connect the wires (a, b) which proceed upwards from the interior of each tube, the one with one end of the battery, and the other with the other end, the water in the tubes will be decomposed; hydrogen will be given out round the wire in the tube connected with the positive end of the battery, and oxygen in the other; and these gases will be evolved, exactly in the proportions which I have before mentioned, namely, two measures of hydrogen for one of oxygen. We shall now begin the experiment, but it will be some time before any sensible quantity of the gases can be collected.

EMILY.

The decomposition of water in this way, slow as it is, is certainly very striking; but I confess that I should be still more gratified, if you could shew it us on a larger scale, and by a quicker process. I am sorry that the decomposition of water by charcoal or metals is attended with so much inconvenience.

MRS. B.

Water may be decomposed by means of metals without any difficulty; but for this purpose the intervention of an acid is required. Thus, if we add some sulphuric acid (a substance with the nature of which you are not yet acquainted) to the water which the metal is to decompose, the acid disposes the metal to combine with the oxygen of the water so readily and abundantly, that no heat is required to hasten the process. Of this I am going to shew you an instance. I put into this bottle the water that is to be decomposed, as also the metal that is to effect that decomposition by combining with the oxygen, and the acid which is to facilitate the combination of the metal and the oxygen. You will see with what violence these will act on each other.

CAROLINE.

But what metal is it that you employ for this purpose?

MRS. B.

It is iron; and it is used in the state of filings, as these present a greater surface to the acid than a solid piece of metal. For as it is the surface of the metal which is acted upon by the acid, and is disposed to receive the oxygen produced by the decomposition of the water, it necessarily follows that the greater is the surface, the more considerable is the effect. The bubbles which are now rising are hydrogen gas——

CAROLINE.

How disagreeably it smells!

MRS. B.

It is indeed unpleasant, though, I believe, not particularly hurtful. We shall not, however, suffer any more to escape, as it will be wanted for experiments. I shall, therefore, collect it in a glass-receiver, by making it pass through this bent tube, which will conduct it into the water-bath. (PLATE VIII. fig. 3.)

EMILY.

How very rapidly the gas escapes! it is perfectly transparent, and without any colour whatever. —Now the receiver is full——

MRS. B.

We shall, therefore, remove it, and substitute another in its place. But you must observe, that when the receiver is full, it is necessary to keep it inverted with the mouth under water, otherwise the gas would escape. And in order that it may not be in the way, I introduce within the bath, under the water, a saucer, into which I slide the receiver, so that it can be taken out of the bath and conveyed any where, the water in the saucer being equally effectual in preventing its escape as that in the bath. (PLATE VIII. fig. 4.)

EMILY.

I am quite surprised to see what a large quantity of hydrogen gas can be produced by such a small quantity of water, especially as oxygen is the principal constituent of water.

MRS. B.

In weight it is; but not in volume. For though the proportion, by weight, is nearly six parts of oxygen to one of hydrogen, yet the proportion of the volume of the gases, is about one part of oxygen to two of hydrogen; so much heavier is the former than the latter.

CAROLINE.

But why is the vessel in which the water is decomposed so hot? As the water changes from a liquid to a gaseous form, cold should be produced instead of heat.

MRS. B.

No; for if one of the constituents of water is converted into a gas, the other becomes solid in combining with the metal.

EMILY.

In this case, then, neither heat nor cold should be produced?

MRS. B.

True: but observe that the sensible heat which is disengaged in this operation, is not owing to the decomposition of the water, but to an extrication of heat produced by the mixture of water and sulphuric acid. I will mix some water and sulphuric acid together in this glass, that you may feel the surprising quantity of heat that is disengaged by their union—now take hold of the glass——

CAROLINE.

Indeed I cannot; it feels as hot as boiling water. I should have imagined there would have been heat enough disengaged to have rendered the liquid solid.

MRS. B.

As, however, it does not produce that effect, we cannot refer this heat to the modification called latent heat. We may, however, I think, consider it as heat of capacity, as the liquid is condensed by its loss; and if you were to repeat the experiment, in a graduated tube, you would find that the two liquids, when mixed, occupy considerably less space than they did separately. —But we will reserve this to another opportunity, and attend at present to the hydrogen gas which we have been producing.

If I now set the hydrogen gas, which is contained in this receiver, at liberty all at once, and kindle it as soon as it comes in contact with the atmosphere, by presenting it to a candle, it will so suddenly and rapidly decompose the oxygen gas, by combining with its basis, that an explosion, or a detonation (as chemists commonly call it), will be produced. For this purpose, I need only take up the receiver, and quickly present its open mouth to the candle—— so . . . .

CAROLINE.

It produced only a sort of hissing noise, with a vivid flash of light. I had expected a much greater report.

MRS. B.

And so it would have been, had the gases been closely confined at the moment they were made to explode. If, for instance, we were to put in this bottle a mixture of hydrogen gas and atmospheric air; and if, after corking the bottle, we should kindle the mixture by a very small orifice, from the sudden dilatation of the gases at the moment of their combination, the bottle must either fly to pieces, or the cork be blown out with considerable violence.

CAROLINE.

But in the experiment which we have just seen, if you did not kindle the hydrogen gas, would it not equally combine with the oxygen?

MRS. B.

Certainly not; for, as I have just explained to you, it is necessary that the oxygen and hydrogen gases be burnt together, in order to combine chemically and produce water.

CAROLINE.

That is true; but I thought this was a different combination, for I see no water produced.

MRS. B.

The water resulting from this detonation was so small in quantity, and in such a state of minute division, as to be invisible. But water certainly was produced; for oxygen is incapable of combining with hydrogen in any other proportions than those that form water; therefore water must always be the result of their combination.

If, instead of bringing the hydrogen gas into sudden contact with the atmosphere (as we did just now) so as to make the whole of it explode the moment it is kindled, we allow but a very small surface of gas to burn in contact with the atmosphere, the combustion goes on quietly and gradually at the point of contact, without any detonation, because the surfaces brought together are too small for the immediate union of gases. The experiment is a very easy one. This phial, with a narrow neck, (PLATE VIII. fig. 5.) is full of hydrogen gas, and is carefully corked. If I take out the cork without moving the phial, and quickly approach the candle to the orifice, you will see how different the result will be——

EMILY.

How prettily it burns, with a blue flame! The flame is gradually sinking within the phial—now it has entirely disappeared. But does not this combustion likewise produce water?

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