CHAPTER XI. THE EXAMINATION OF THE PHENOMENA OF COMBUSTION.

This proof was not forthcoming until about a century after the publication of Mayow's work. The experiments which furnished the proof were rendered possible by a notable discovery made on the 1st of August 1774, by the celebrated Joseph Priestley.

Priestley prepared many "airs" of different kinds: by the actions of acids on metals, by allowing vegetables to decay, by heating beef, mutton, and other animal substances, and by other methods. He says: "Having procured a lens of twelve inches diameter and twenty inches focal distance, I proceeded with great alacrity to examine, by the help of it, what kind of air a great variety of substances, natural and factitious, would yield.... With this apparatus, after a variety of other experiments.... on the 1st of August, 1774, I endeavoured to extract air from mercurius calcinatus per se; and I presently found that, by means of this lens, air was expelled from it very readily. Having got about three or four times as much as the bulk of my materials, I admitted water to it, and found that it was not imbibed by it. But what surprised me more than I can well express was, that a candle burned in this air with a remarkably vigorous flame.... I was utterly at a loss how to account for it."

The apparatus used by Priestley, in his experiments on different kinds of air, is represented in Fig. XVI., which is reduced from an illustration in Priestley's book on Airs.

Priestley had made a discovery which was destined to change Alchemy into Chemistry. But he did not know what his discovery meant. It was reserved for the greatest of all chemists, Antoine Lavoisier, to use the fact stumbled on by Priestley.

After some months Priestley began to think it possible that the new "air" he had obtained from calcined mercury might be fit for respiration. To his surprise he found that a mouse lived in this air much longer than in common air; the new air was evidently better, or purer, than ordinary air. Priestley measured what he called the "goodness" of the new air, by a process of his own devising, and concluded that it was "between four and five times as good as common air."

Priestley was a thorough-going phlogistean. He seems to have been able to describe the results of his experiments only in the language of the phlogistic theory; just as the results of most of the experiments made to-day on the changes of compounds of the element carbon cannot be described by chemists except by making use of the conceptions and the language of the atomic and molecular theory.[6]

   [6] I have given numerous illustrations of the truth of this 
   statement in the book, in this series, entitled The Story of 
   the Wanderings of Atoms
.

The upholder of the phlogistic theory could not think of burning as possible unless there was a suitable receptacle for the phlogiston of the burning substance: when burning occurred in the air, the part played by the air, according to the phlogistic chemist, was to receive the expelled phlogiston; in this sense the air acted as the pabulum, or nourishment, of the burning substance. Inasmuch as substances burned more vigorously and brilliantly in the new air than in common air, Priestley argued that the new air was more ready, more eager, than ordinary air, to receive phlogiston; and, therefore, that the new air contained less phlogiston than ordinary air, or, perhaps, no phlogiston. Arguing thus, Priestley, of course, named the new aeriform substance dephlogisticated air, and thought of it as ordinary air deprived of some, or it might be all, of its phlogiston.

The breathing of animals and the burning of substances were supposed to load the atmosphere with phlogiston. Priestley spoke of the atmosphere as being constantly "vitiated," "rendered noxious," "depraved," or "corrupted" by processes of respiration and combustion; he called those processes whereby the atmosphere is restored to its original condition (or "depurated," as he said), "dephlogisticating processes." As he had obtained his dephlogisticated air by heating the calx of mercury, that is the powder produced by calcining mercury in the air, Priestley was forced to suppose that the calcination of mercury in the air must be a more complex occurrence than merely the expulsion of phlogiston from the mercury: for, if the process consisted only in the expulsion of phlogiston, how could heating what remained produce exceedingly pure ordinary air? It seemed necessary to suppose that not only was phlogiston expelled from mercury during calcination, but that the mercury also imbibed some portion, and that the purest portion, of the surrounding air. Priestley did not, however, go so far as this; he was content to suppose that in some way, which he did not explain, the process of calcination resulted in the loss of phlogiston by the mercury, and the gain, by the dephlogisticated mercury, of the property of yielding exceedingly pure or dephlogisticated air when it was heated very strongly.