Antoine Lavoisier was a French chemist known for the 18th-century chemical revolution. He had a huge influence on the history of chemistry as welal as the history of biology. He is most noted for discovering the role of oxygen in combustion. Additionally, Antoine named oxygen and hydrogen while opposing the phlogiston theory. He even helped develop the metric system and wrote the first detailed and extensive list of elements.
Unfortunately, he was executed later on at the height of the French Revolution. However, his legacy remains and it is only right that we precisely recall it. Let’s begin,
Early Life as a Scientist and Tax Collector
Antoine Lavoisier was perhaps the only 18thcentury scientist who was also a tax collector. At a time when you could either be one of them, Antoine proved to be both. Antoine was a son of a wealthy Parisian lawyer who completed his law degree according to his family’s wishes. However, his real interest was in science, which he followed publicly.
Considering his early contribution and success to the field of biology, he was elected in 1768 to the Academy of Sciences at just 25 years of age. It was France’s most elite scientific society at the time. The same year, he introduced the Ferme Generele, a private corporation that collected taxes for the Crown on a profit and loss basis.
Later down the road, he married the daughter of another tax farmer. His wife Marie Pierrette Paulze was merely 14 at the time and prepared herself to help her husband with his scientific achievements by becoming a collaborator and learning English. She used to translate the works of British chemists like Joseph Priestley and used illustrations and art to showcase Antoine’s scientific experiments.
Work with Gun Powder
The year 1775 saw Antoine being appointed the commissioner of the Royal Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration. As a result, he took residence in the Paris Arsenal. Antoine came up with a fine laboratory with the intention to attract chemists from all over Europe and learn about the ongoing chemical revolution at the time.
He worked on making more and better gunpowder by increasing the supply and ensuring the purity of the constituents including charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter.
Promoting the Chemical Revolution
One of the most notable features of Antoine’s work in Chemistry was the systematic determination of the weights of reagents and products that are involved in chemical reactions along with his belief that matter, which is identified by weight would be conserved through any reaction.
In addition to that, he was also credited for helping people understand the combustion and respiration process as a result of chemical reactions involving oxygen. He also went onto prove that water is made up of both oxygen and hydrogen.
Antoine’s contribution to the Chemical Revolution was quite significant. He gave names to substances was important to the process of the Revolution as the terms expressed the history behind them. Since he was against the phlogiston theory, he published a textbook along with a journal in 1789 to propagate his ideas.
The textbook was called Traite elementaire de chimie while the journal was titled Annales de chimie featuring new chemistry ideas and methods.
Adulteration of Tobacco
In France, the Farmers General held a monopoly on the production, import, and sale of tobacco. As a result, the taxes levied on tobacco brought around 30 million livres each year. Since the demand for tobacco was on the rise, it led to the creation of a black market where tobacco was being sold and purchased commonly with ash and water.
Antoine came up with a method to check whether tobacco has been mixed with ash. He found out that the taste of tobacco became better when it was slightly mixed with ash.
However, at the same time, he also found out that adding a lot of water to bulk up the tobacco makes it ferment and smell bad. Therefore, adding the right amount of ash gives tobacco the flavor its customers are looking for. As a result, the factories of the Farmers General added 6.3% water according to Antoine’s recommendation to the tobacco they processed.
To ensure that it was not traded in the black market, Antoine came up with strict measures and checks making it very difficult for the retailers to improve their profits by bulking up. He was two steps ahead of everyone in implementing these checks and did so successfully.
Dismantling Phlogiston Theory
Antoine’s chemical research between 1772 and 1778 was largely concerned with developing his own theory of combustion. In 1783, he read his research paper to the academy, which was a full-fledged attack on the current combustion theory of phlogiston. The same year, Antoine began conducting experiments involving water and managed to change a lot of minds.
Although many investigators had been experimenting with Henry Cavendish’s inflammable air termed hydrogen by Antoine but they interpreted their results in accordance with the Phlogiston theory. Meanwhile, Antoine was able to successfully prove that water was made from oxygen and hydrogen. Despite the experiments proving water bring formed of oxygen and hydrogen, Antoine’s antiphlogiston approach remained unaccepted by many chemists.
Antoine’s contribution to chemistry revolutionized the way chemists looked at several chemicals at the time. His efforts to fit all experiments into the framework of a single theory and using oxygen to overthrow the phlogiston theory helped develop a new system of chemical nomenclature.
He was known as a theorist who took over the work of others and utilized rigorous logical procedures combined with his own quantitative experiments to come up with true explanations of the results. He took over the works of many renowned scientists and chemists of the time and managed to provide correct explanations of their experiments.
It goes without saying that Antoine was one of the best scientists of the 18th century. Chemistry, as we see it today, would not have been the same if it wasn’t for Antoine contributing his share. Although his life was cut short by false execution, his legacy continues to inspire the world of Chemistry.
Lagrange expressed his emotions by saying “It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce it’s like”. Therefore, only time can tell if history repeats itself and we get to see the likes of Antoine Lavoisier rising again to make revolutionary changes.