Modern chemistry may be said to have its beginning with the work of Stephen Hales (1677-1761), who early in the eighteenth century began his important study of the elasticity of air. Departing from the point of view of most of the scientists of the time, be considered air to be "a fine elastic fluid, with particles of very different nature floating in it" ; and he showed that these "particles" could be separated. He pointed out, also, that various gases, or "airs," as he called them, were contained in many solid substances. The importance of his work, however, lies in the fact that his general studies were along lines leading away from the accepted doctrines of the time, and that they gave the impetus to the investigation of the properties of gases by such chemists as Black, Priestley, Cavendish, and Lavoisier, whose specific discoveries are the foundation-stones of modern chemistry.


The careful studies of Hales were continued by his younger confrere, Dr. Joseph Black (1728-1799), whose experiments in the weights of gases and other chemicals were first steps in quantitative chemistry. But even more important than his discoveries of chemical properties in general was his discovery of the properties of carbonic-acid gas.

Black had been educated for the medical profession in the University of Glasgow, being a friend and pupil of the famous Dr. William Cullen. But his liking was for the chemical laboratory rather than for the practice of medicine. Within three years after completing his medical course, and when only twenty-three years of age, he made the discovery of the properties of carbonic acid, which he called by the name of "fixed air." After discovering this gas, Black made a long series of experiments, by which he was able to show how widely it was distributed throughout nature. Thus, in 1757, be discovered that the bubbles given off in the process of brewing, where there was vegetable fermentation, were composed of it. To prove this, he collected the contents of these bubbles in a bottle containing lime-water. When this bottle was shaken violently, so that the lime-water and the carbonic acid became thoroughly mixed, an insoluble white powder was precipitated from the solution, the carbonic acid having combined chemically with the lime to form the insoluble calcium carbonate, or chalk. This experiment suggested another. Fixing a piece of burning charcoal in the end of a bellows, he arranged a tube so that the gas coming from the charcoal would pass through the lime-water, and, as in the case of the bubbles from the brewer's vat, he found that the white precipitate was thrown down; in short, that carbonic acid was given off in combustion. Shortly after, Black discovered that by blowing through a glass tube inserted into lime-water, chalk was precipitated, thus proving that carbonic acid was being constantly thrown off in respiration.

The effect of Black's discoveries was revolutionary, and the attitude of mind of the chemists towards gases, or "airs," was changed from that time forward. Most of the chemists, however, attempted to harmonize the new facts with the older theories—to explain all the phenomena on the basis of the phlogiston theory, which was still dominant. But while many of Black's discoveries could not be made to harmonize with that theory, they did not directly overthrow it. It required the additional discoveries of some of Black's fellow-scientists to complete its downfall, as we shall see.


This work of Black's was followed by the equally important work of his former pupil, Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), whose discovery of the composition of many substances, notably of nitric acid and of water, was of great importance, adding another link to the important chain of evidence against the phlogiston theory. Cavendish is one of the most eccentric figures in the history of science, being widely known in his own time for his immense wealth and brilliant intellect, and also for his peculiarities and his morbid sensibility, which made him dread society, and probably did much in determining his career. Fortunately for him, and incidentally for the cause of science, he was able to pursue laboratory investigations without being obliged to mingle with his dreaded fellow-mortals, his every want being provided for by the immense fortune inherited from his father and an uncle.