Saturday, October 10, 2009

October 10: Henry Cavendish

Henry Cavendish
October 10, 1731 - February 24, 1810

Henry Cavendish, FRS was a British scientist noted for his discovery of hydrogen or what he called "inflammable air". He described the density of inflammable air, which formed water on combustion, in a 1766 paper "On Factitious Airs". Antoine Lavoisier later reproduced Cavendish's experiment and gave the element its name. Cavendish is also known for the Cavendish experiment, his measurement of the Earth's density, and early research into electricity.

Henry Cavendish was born in Nice, France, where his family was living at the time. His mother was Lady Anne Grey, daughter of the Duke of Kent and his father was Lord Charles Cavendish, son of 2nd Duke of Devonshire.

At age 11, Cavendish was a pupil at Peter Newcome's School in Hackney. At age 18 he entered the University of Cambridge in St Peter's College, now known as Peterhouse, but left four years later without graduating. His first paper, "Factitious Airs", appeared thirteen years later, in 1766.

Cavendish was silent, and solitary, viewed as somewhat eccentric, he only spoke to his female servents by notes and formed no close personal relationships outside his family. By one account, Cavendish had a back staircase added to his house in order to avoid encountering his housekeeper because he was especially shy of women.

Because of his asocial and secretive behaviour, Cavendish often avoided publishing his work, and much of his findings were not even told to his fellow scientists. In the late nineteenth century, long after his death, James Clerk Maxwell looked through Cavendish's papers and found things for which others had been given credit. Examples of what was included in Cavendish's discoveries or anticipations were Richter's Law of Reciprocal Proportions, Ohm's Law, Dalton's Law of Partial Pressures, principles of electrical conductivity (including Coulomb's Law), and Charles's Law of Gases.

In addition to his achievements in chemistry, Cavendish is also known for the Cavendish experiment, the first to measure the force of gravity between masses in a laboratory and to produce an accurate value for the Earth's density. His work led others to accurate values for the gravitational constant (G) and the Earth's mass.

The Lunar crater Cavendish is named in his honor.

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