CHAPTER XII. THE RECOGNITION OF CHEMICAL CHANGES AS THE INTERACTIONS OF DEFINITE SUBSTANCES.

The experimental study of combustion made by Lavoisier proved the correctness of that part of Stahl's phlogistic theory which asserted that all processes of combustion are very similar, but also proved that this likeness consists in the combination of a distinct gaseous substance with the material undergoing combustion, and not in the escape therefrom of the Principle of fire, as asserted by the theory of Stahl. After about the year 1790, it was necessary to think of combustions in the air as combinations of a particular gas, or air, with the burning substances, or some portions of them.

This description of processes of burning necessarily led to a comparison of the gaseous constituent of the atmosphere which played so important a part in these processes, with the substances which were burned; it led to the examination of the compositions of many substances, and made it necessary to devise a language whereby these compositions could be stated clearly and consistently.

We have seen, in former chapters, the extreme haziness of the alchemical views of composition, and the connexions between composition and properties. Although Boyle[7] had stated very lucidly what he meant by the composition of a definite substance, about a century before Lavoisier's work on combustion, nevertheless the views of chemists concerning composition remained very vague and incapable of definite expression, until the experimental investigations of Lavoisier enabled him to form a clear mental picture of chemical changes as interactions between definite quantities of distinct substances.

   [7] Boyle said, in 1689, "I mean by elements ... certain 
   primitive and simple, or perfectly unmixed bodies; which not 
   being made of any other bodies, or of one another, are the 
   ingredients of which all those called perfectly mixt bodies are 
   immediately compounded, and into which they are ultimately 
   resolved."

Let us consider some of the work of Lavoisier in this direction. I select his experimental examination of the interactions of metals and acids.

Many experimenters had noticed that gases (or airs, as they were called up till near the end of the 18th century) are generally produced when metals are dissolving in acids. Most of those who noticed this said that the gases came from the dissolving metals; Lavoisier said they were produced by the decomposition of the acids. In order to study the interaction of nitric acid and mercury, Lavoisier caused a weighed quantity of the metal to react with a weighed quantity of the acid, and collected the gas which was produced; when all the metal had dissolved, he evaporated the liquid until a white solid was obtained; he heated this solid until it was changed to the red substance called, at that time, red precipitate, and collected the gas produced. Finally, Lavoisier strongly heated the red precipitate; it changed to a gas, which he collected, and mercury, which he weighed.

The weight of the mercury obtained by Lavoisier at the end of this series of changes was the same, less a few grains, as the weight of the mercury which he had caused to react with the nitric acid. The gas obtained during the solution of the metal in the acid, and during the decomposition of the white solid by heat, was the same as a gas which had been prepared by Priestley and called by him nitrous air; and the gas obtained by heating the red precipitate was found to be oxygen. Lavoisier then mixed measured volumes of oxygen and "nitrous air," standing over water; a red gas was formed, and dissolved in the water, and Lavoisier proved that the water now contained nitric acid.

The conclusions regarding the composition of nitric acid drawn by Lavoisier from these experiments was, that "nitric acid is nothing else than nitrous air, combined with almost its own volume of the purest part of atmospheric air, and a considerable quantity of water."

Lavoisier supposed that the stages in the complete reaction between mercury and nitric acid were these: the withdrawal of oxygen from the acid by the mercury, and the union of the compound of mercury and oxygen thus formed with the constituents of the acid which remained when part of its oxygen was taken away. The removal of oxygen from nitric acid by the mercury produced nitrous air; when the product of the union of the oxide of mercury and the nitric acid deprived of part of its oxygen was heated, more nitrous air was given off, and oxide of mercury remained, and was decomposed, at a higher temperature, into mercury and oxygen.

Lavoisier thought of these reactions as the tearing asunder, by mercury, of nitric acid into definite quantities of its three components, themselves distinct substances, nitrous air, water, and oxygen; and the combination of the mercury with a certain measurable quantity of one of these components, namely, oxygen, followed by the union of this compound of mercury and oxygen with what remained of the components of nitric acid.