Littell's Living Age/Volume 144/Issue 1859/The Asserted Artificial Production of the Diamond

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Littell's Living Age by Nevil Story-Maskelyne
Volume 144, Issue 1856 : The Asserted Artificial Production of the Diamond
Originally published in Nature.

Prof. Maskelyne sends us the following letter on this subject:—

I should be obliged if you would accord me space in one of your columns in order that I may answer a great number of letters and applications which have pursued me during the past few days on a subject of some little public interest, that subject being the asserted formation of diamonds by a gentleman at Glasgow.

Some ten days ago I bad heard nothing whatever of the claim of Mr. Mactear, of the St. Rollox Works, Glasgow, to the artificial production of the diamond.

My name, however, was already in several newspapers as that of a person in whose hands the asserted diamonds had been placed for a decision as to their true nature. Ultimately a small watch-glass with a few microscopic crystalline particles came into my hands for this purpose from Mr. Warington Smyth, and subsequently a supply came to me direct from Mr. Mactear. I shall proceed to state the results I have obtained from the examination of these.

Out of the first supply I selected by far the largest particle, one about the one-fiftieth of an inch in length, and it may be that I wasted some time in experimenting on this particle, as it might not have been an authentic, example of the “manufactured diamond,” since it differed in some respects from the specimens I have since received direct from Mr. Mactear.

The diamond excels all substances in hardness. Its crystals belong to the cubic system, and should not, therefore, present the property of doubly refracting light. Frequently, however, from the influence of strains within the crystal due to inclosed gas bubbles, or other causes, diamonds are not entirely without action on a ray of polarized light sent through them. Finally, the diamond is pure carbon, and, as such, burns entirely away when heated to a sufficiently high temperature in the air, and more vividly so burns, or rather glows away, when heated in oxygen gas.

The specimens I had to experiment upon were too light to possess appreciable weight, too small even to see unless by very good eyesight or with a lens, yet were, nevertheless, sufficiently large to answer the three questions suggested by the above properties.

A few grains of the dust, for such the substance must be termed, were placed between a plate of topaz—a cleavage-face with its fine natural polish—and a polished surface of sapphire, and the two surfaces were carefully "worked" over each other with a view to the production of lines of abrasion from the particles between them. There was no abrasion. Ultimately the particles became bruised into a powder but without scratching even the topaz. They are not diamond.

Secondly, some particles more crystalline in appearance than the rest were mounted on a glass microscope slide and examined in the microscope with polarized light. They acted each and all powerfully in the manner of a birefringent crystal. It seemed even in one or two of them that when they lay on their broadest surface (it can scarcely be called a “crystal-face “) a principal section of the crystal was just slightly inclined to a flattish side of it in a manner that suggested its not being a crystal of any of the orthosymmetrical systems. Be that as it may, it is not a diamond.

Finally, I took two of these microscopic particles and exposed them to the intense heat of a table blow-pipe on a bit of platinum foil. They resisted this attempt to burn them. Then, for comparison, they were placed in contact with two little particles of diamond dust exceeding them in size, and the experiment was repeated. The result was that the diamond particles glowed and disappeared, while the little particle from Glasgow was as obstinate and as unacted on as before. I had previously treated the specimen I have alluded to as the first on which I experimented by making a similar attempt in a hard glass tube in a stream of oxygen, and the result was the same. Hence I conclude that the substance supposed to be artificially-formed diamond is not diamond and is not carbon, and I feel as confident in the results thus obtained from a few infinitesimal particles that can barely be measured and could only be weighed by an assay balance of the most refined delicacy, as if the experiments had been performed on crystals of appreciable size.

Not content with merely proving what these crystalline particles are not, I made an experiment to determine something about what they are.

Heated on platinum foil several times with ammonium fluoride, they became visibly more minute, and a slight reddish white incrustation was seen on the foil. At the suggestion of Dr. Flight, assistant in this department, a master in the craft of the chemical analyst,, these little particles were left for the night in hydrofluoric acid in a platinum capsule. This morning they have disappeared, having become dissolved in the acid.

I have, therefore, no hesitation in declaring Mr. Mactear’s “diamonds” not only not to be diamonds at all, but to consist of some crystallized silicate, possibly one resembling an augite, though it would be very rash to assert anything beyond the fact that they consist of a compound of silica, and possibly of more than one such compound.

The problem of the permutation of carbon from its ordinary opaque black condition into that in which it occurs in nature, as the limpid crystal of diamond, is still unsolved. That it will be solved no scientific mind can doubt, though the conditions necessary may prove to be very difficult to fulfil. It is possible that carbon, like metallic arsenic, passes directly into the condition of vapor from that of a solid, and that the condition for its sublimation in the form of crystals, or its cooling into crystal diamond from the liquid state, is one involving a combination of high temperature and high pressure present in the depths of the earth’s crust, but very difficult to establish in a laboratory experiment.