Henry Cavendish: The Catalyst for the Chemical Revolution1

By Seitz, Frederick | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Henry Cavendish: The Catalyst for the Chemical Revolution1


Seitz, Frederick, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


To the Memory of Glenn T. Seaborg (1912-1999)

WHATEVER ELSE MAY BE SAID regarding the relative status of Henry Cavendish and Antoine Lavoisier in connection with the great chemical revolution that finally occurred at the end of the eighteenth century, I believe it is entirely proper to state that Lavoisier would not have had as sound and convincing a basis on which to advance his theory of the chemical elements at the time he did in 1789, had it not been for the exceedingly precise experimental work of Cavendish on the gaseous elements, not least his revelation regarding the true nature of water as a compound formed of hydrogen and oxygen rather than an element, as had been believed for millennia. That discovery provided the special key needed to open the door to a new world by giving Lavoisier the courage to dismiss flatly the concept of phlogiston and to proceed with a new basis for the structure of matter. Much of great importance that Cavendish discovered would inevitably have come to light in the next century with the development of electrolysis. But Lavoisier would not have been a participant after 1794, when he was guillotined. The glory associated with the chemical revolution would have gone to others. Lavoisier's reputation as the father of modern chemistry depends significantly on the work of Cavendish, a scientist of different temperament but comparable stature.

Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) was born in Nice, where his mother had gone as a convenience for her first childbirth. His father, Charles Cavendish (1704-1783), was the third surviving son of William Cavendish (1672-1729), the second duke of Devonshire and head of the family. His mother's maiden name was Anne de Grey. She was the fourth surviving daughter of Henry de Grey (1671-1740), the duke of Kent. The Cavendishes and the de Greys were not direct descendants of England's royal families. Rather, they earned noble status by rendering special service to the government, particularly the Crown, in times of serious troubles through use of their political convictions, personal courage, and wealth.

Charles and Anne had a second son, Frederick, who was born two years after Henry. Unfortunately, Frederick suffered serious brain damage as a result of an accidental fall at the age of twenty-one during his final year at Cambridge University. The evidence suggests that he was trying to repeat Benjamin Franklin's famous experiment on the nature of lightning with a kite during an approaching storm, and fell from an upper window of a building. He needed special care throughout the remainder of his life. He was relatively unproductive and outlived Henry by two years. The two brothers were close but not intimate friends, being of different personality. Anne died, presumably of tuberculosis, soon after Frederick's birth, so neither of the boys really knew their mother. They were raised mainly by their father and servants.

The de Greys, who had held the title earl of Kent for eleven generations, had supported Parliament during the Cromwellian Revolution (1642-53) in which Charles I was beheaded. As a result they avoided political activity after the restoration of the Stuarts for reasons of personal safety as well as economics. Their attitude changed somewhat after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 replaced the Catholic Stuart James II with his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. The latter carried the title and some of the prestige of William "The Silent," who prior to his assassination had led the Dutch portion of Flanders in its successful eighty-year struggle for independence from Spain and the Inquisition (1568-1648).

Anne's paternal grandfather participated formally in the coronation of William and Mary, and her father, a close friend of Charles Cavendish, became an influential official in the court. In 1710 he succeeded in having his rank of nobility raised from earl to duke. (In descending order, the ranking of English nobility is duke, marquis, earl, viscount, and baron. …

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