1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent
LAVOISIER, ANTOINE LAURENT (1743–1794), French chemist, was born in Paris on the 26th of August 1743. His father, an avocat au parlement, gave him an excellent education at the collège Mazarin, and encouraged his taste for natural science; and he studied mathematics and astronomy with N. L. de Lacaille, chemistry with the elder Rouelle and botany with Bernard de Jussieu. In 1766 he received a gold medal from the Academy of Sciences for an essay on the best means of lighting a large town; and among his early work were papers on the analysis of gypsum, on thunder, on the aurora and on congelation, and a refutation of the prevalent belief that water by repeated distillation is converted into earth. He also assisted J. E. Guettard (1715–1786) in preparing his mineralogical atlas of France. In 1768, recognized as a man who had both the ability and the means for a scientific career, he was nominated adjoint chimiste to the Academy, and in that capacity made numerous reports on the most diverse subjects, from the theory of colours to water-supply and from invalid chairs to mesmerism and the divining rod. The same year he obtained the position of adjoint to Baudon, one of the farmers-general of the revenue, subsequently becoming a full titular member of the body. This was the first of a series of posts in which his administrative abilities found full scope. Appointed régisseur des poudres in 1775, he not only abolished the vexatious search for saltpetre in the cellars of private houses, but increased the production of the salt and improved the manufacture of gunpowder. In 1785 he was nominated to the committee on agriculture, and as its secretary drew up reports and instructions on the cultivation of various crops, and promulgated schemes for the establishment of experimental agricultural stations, the distribution of agricultural implements and the adjustment of rights of pasturage. Seven years before he had started a model farm at Fréchine, where he demonstrated the advantages of scientific methods of cultivation and of the introduction of good breeds of cattle and sheep. Chosen a member of the provincial assembly of Orleans in 1787, he busied himself with plans for the improvement of the social and economic conditions of the community by means of savings banks, insurance societies, canals, workhouses, &c.; and he showed the sincerity of his philanthropical work by advancing money out of his own pocket, without interest, to the towns of Blois and Romorantin, for the purchase of barley during the famine of 1788. Attached in this same year to the caisse d’escompte, he presented the report of its operations to the national assembly in 1789, and as commissary of the treasury in 1791 he established a system of accounts of unexampled punctuality. He was also asked by the national assembly to draw up a new scheme of taxation in connexion with which he produced a report De la richesse territoriale de la France, and he was further associated with committees on hygiene, coinage, the casting of cannon, &c., and was secretary and treasurer of the commission appointed in 1790 to secure uniformity of weights and measures.
In 1791, when Lavoisier was in the middle of all this official activity, the suppression of the farmers-general marked the beginning of troubles which brought about his death. His membership of that body was alone sufficient to make him an object of suspicion; his administration at the régie des poudres was attacked; and Marat accused him in the Ami du Peuple of putting Paris in prison and of stopping the circulation of air in the city by the mur d’octroi erected at his suggestion in 1787. The Academy, of which as treasurer at the time he was a conspicuous member, was regarded by the convention with no friendly eyes as being tainted with “incivism,” and in the spring of 1792 A. F. Fourcroy endeavoured to persuade it to purge itself of suspected members. The attempt was unsuccessful, but in August of the same year Lavoisier had to leave his house and laboratory at the Arsenal, and in November the Academy was forbidden until further orders to fill up the vacancies in its numbers. Next year, on the 1st of August, the convention passed a decree for the uniformity of weights and measures, and requested the Academy to take measures for carrying it out, but a week later Fourcroy persuaded the same convention to suppress the Academy together with other literary societies patentées et dotées by the nation. In November it ordered the arrest of the ex-farmers-general, and on the advice of the committee of public instruction, of which Guyton de Morveau and Fourcroy were members, the names of Lavoisier and others were struck off from the commission of weights and measures. The fate of the ex-farmers-general was sealed on the 2nd of May 1794, when, on the proposal of Antoine Dupin, one of their former officials, the convention sent them for trial by the Revolutionary tribunal. Within a week Lavoisier and 27 others were condemned to death. A petition in his favour addressed to Coffinhal, the president of the tribunal, is said to have been met with the reply La République n’a pas besoin de savants, and on the 8th of the month Lavoisier and his companions were guillotined at the Place de la Révolution. He died fourth, and was preceded by his colleague Jacques Paulze, whose daughter he had married in 1771. “Il ne leur a fallu,” Lagrange remarked, “qu’un moment pour faire tomber cette tête, et cent années peut-être ne suffiront pas pour en reproduire une semblable.”
Lavoisier’s name is indissolubly associated with the overthrow of the phlogistic doctrine that had dominated the development of chemistry for over a century, and with the establishment of the foundations upon which the modern science reposes. “He discovered,” says Justus von Liebig (Letters on Chemistry, No. 3), “no new body, no new property, no natural phenomenon previously unknown; but all the facts established by him were the necessary consequences of the labours of those who preceded him. His merit, his immortal glory, consists in this—that he infused into the body of the science a new spirit; but all the members of that body were already in existence, and rightly joined together.” Realizing that the total weight of all the products of a chemical reaction must be exactly equal to the total weight of the reacting substances, he made the balance the ultima ratio of the laboratory, and he was able to draw correct inferences from his weighings because, unlike many of the phlogistonists, he looked upon heat as imponderable. It was by weighing that in 1770 he proved that water is not converted into earth by distillation, for he showed that the total weight of a sealed glass vessel and the water it contained remained constant, however long the water was boiled, but that the glass vessel lost weight to an extent equal to the weight of earth produced, his inference being that the earth came from the glass, not from the water. On the 1st of November 1772 he deposited with the Academy a sealed note which stated that sulphur and phosphorus when burnt increased in weight because they absorbed “air,” while the metallic lead formed from litharge by reduction with charcoal weighed less than the original litharge because it had lost “air.” The exact nature of the airs concerned in the processes he did not explain until after the preparation of “dephlogisticated air” (oxygen) by Priestley in 1774. Then, perceiving that in combustion and the calcination of metals only a portion of a given volume of common air was used up, he concluded that Priestley’s new air, air éminemment pur, was what was absorbed by burning phosphorus, &c., “non-vital air,” azote, or nitrogen remaining behind. The gas given off in the reduction of metallic calces by charcoal he at first supposed to be merely that contained in the calx, but he soon came to understand that it was a product formed by the union of the charcoal with the “dephlogisticated air” in the calx. In a memoir presented to the Academy in 1777, but not published till 1782, he assigned to dephlogisticated air the name oxygen, or “acid-producer,” on the supposition that all acids were formed by its union with a simple, usually non-metallic, body; and having verified this notion for phosphorus, sulphur, charcoal, &c., and even extended it to the vegetable acids, he naturally asked himself what was formed by the combustion of “inflammable air” (hydrogen). This problem he had attacked in 1774, and in subsequent years he made various attempts to discover the acid which, under the influence of his oxygen theory, he expected would be formed. It was not till the 25th of June 1783 that in conjunction with Laplace he announced to the Academy that water was the product formed by the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, but by that time he had been anticipated by Cavendish, to whose prior work, however, as to that of several other investigators in other matters, it is to be regretted that he did not render due acknowledgment. But a knowledge of the composition of water enabled him to storm the last defences of the phlogistonists. Hydrogen they held to be the phlogiston of metals, and they supported this view by pointing out that it was liberated when metals were dissolved in acids. Considerations of weight had long prevented Lavoisier from accepting this doctrine, but he was now able to explain the process fully, showing that the hydrogen evolved did not come from the metal itself, but was one product of the decomposition of the water of the dilute acid, the other product, oxygen, combining with the metal to form an oxide which in turn united with the acid. A little later this same knowledge led him to the beginnings of quantitative organic analysis. Knowing that the water produced by the combustion of alcohol was not pre-existent in that substance but was formed by the combination of its hydrogen with the oxygen of the air, he burnt alcohol and other combustible organic substances, such as wax and oil, in a known volume of oxygen, and, from the weight of the water and carbon dioxide produced and his knowledge of their composition, was able to calculate the amounts of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen present in the substance.
Up to about this time Lavoisier’s work, mainly quantitative in character, had appealed most strongly to physicists, but it now began to win conviction from chemists also. C. L. Berthollet, L. B. Guyton de Morveau and A. F. Fourcroy, his collaborators in the reformed system of chemical terminology set forth in 1787 in the Méthode dechimique, were among the earliest French converts, and they were followed by M. H. Klaproth and the German Academy, and by most English chemists except Cavendish, who rather suspended his judgment, and Priestley, who stubbornly clung to the opposite view. Indeed, though the partisans of phlogiston did not surrender without a struggle, the history of science scarcely presents a second instance of a change so fundamental accomplished with such ease. The spread of Lavoisier’s doctrines was greatly facilitated by the defined and logical form in which he presented them in his Traité élémentaire de chimie (présenté dans un ordre nouveau et d’après les découvertes modernes) (1789). The list of simple substances contained in the first volume of this work includes light and caloric with oxygen, azote and hydrogen. Under the head of “oxidable or acidifiable” substances, the combination of which with oxygen yielded acids, were placed sulphur, phosphorus, carbon, and the muriatic, fluoric and boracic radicles. The metals, which by combination with oxygen became oxides, were antimony, silver, arsenic, bismuth, cobalt, copper, tin, iron, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, gold, platinum, lead, tungsten and zinc; and the “simple earthy salifiable substances” were lime, baryta, magnesia, alumina and silica. The simple nature of the alkalies Lavoisier considered so doubtful that he did not class them as elements, which he conceived as substances which could not be further decomposed by any known process of analysis—les molécules simples et indivisibles qui composent les corps. The union of any two of the elements gave rise to binary compounds, such as oxides, acids, sulphides, &c. A substance containing three elements was a binary compound of the second order; thus salts, the most important compounds of this class, were formed by the union of acids and oxides, iron sulphate, for instance, being a compound of iron oxide with sulphuric acid.
In addition to his purely chemical work, Lavoisier, mostly in conjunction with Laplace, devoted considerable attention to physical problems, especially those connected with heat. The two carried out some of the earliest thermochemical investigations, devised apparatus for measuring linear and cubical expansions, and employed a modification of Joseph Black’s ice calorimeter in a series of determinations of specific heats. Regarding heat (matière de feu or fluide igné) as a peculiar kind of imponderable matter, Lavoisier held that the three states of aggregation—solid, liquid and gas—were modes of matter, each depending on the amount of matière de feu with which the ponderable substances concerned were interpenetrated and combined; and this view enabled him correctly to anticipate that gases would be reduced to liquids and solids by the influence of cold and pressure. He also worked at fermentation, respiration and animal heat, looking upon the processes concerned as essentially chemical in nature. A paper discovered many years after his death showed that he had anticipated later thinkers in explaining the cyclical process of animal and vegetable life, for he pointed out that plants derive their food from the air, from water, and in general from the mineral kingdom, and animals in turn feed on plants or on other animals fed by plants, while the materials thus taken up by plants and animals are restored to the mineral kingdom by the breaking-down processes of fermentation, putrefaction and combustion.
A complete edition of the writings of Lavoisier, Œuvres de Lavoisier, publiées par les soins du ministre de l’instruction publique, was issued at Paris in six volumes from 1864–1893. This publication comprises his Opuscules physiques et chimiques (1774), many memoirs from the Academy volumes, and numerous letters, notes and reports relating to the various matters on which he was engaged. At the time of his death he was preparing an edition of his collected works, and the portions ready for the press were published in two volumes as Mémoires de chimie in 1805 by his widow (in that year married to Count Rumford), who had drawn and engraved the plates in his Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789).
See E. Grimaux, Lavoisier 1743–1794, d’après sa correspondance, ses manuscripts, &c. (1888), which gives a list of his works; P. E. M. Berthelot, La Révolution chimique: Lavoisier (1890), which contains an analysis of and extracts from his laboratory notebooks.