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Scientific Papers.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Michael Faraday

The Chemical History of a Candle

Lecture VI.—Carbon or Charcoal—Coal-Gas—Respiration and its Analogy to the Burning of a Candle—Conclusion

A LADY who honors me by her presence at these lectures has conferred a still farther obligation by sending me these two candles, which are from japan, and, I presume, are made of that substance to which I referred in a former lecture. You see that they are even far more highly ornamented than the French candles, and, I suppose, are candles of luxury, judging from their appearance. They have a remarkable peculiarity about them,—namely, a hollow wick,—that beautiful peculiarity which Argand introduced into the lamp and made so valuable. To those who receive such presents from the East, I may just say that this and such like materials gradually undergo a change which gives them on the surface a dull and dead appearance; but they may easily be restored to their original beauty if the surface be rubbed with a clean cloth or silk handkerchief, so as to polish the little rugosity or roughness: this will restore the beauty of the colors. I have so rubbed one of these candles, and you see the difference between it and the other which has not been polished, but which may be restored by the same process. Observe, also, that these moulded candles from Japan are made more conical than the moulded candles in this part of the world.

I told you, when we last met, a good deal about carbonic acid. We found by the lime-water test that when the vapor from the top of the candle or lamp was received into bottles and tested by this solution of lime-water (the composition of which I explained to you, and which you can make for yourselves), we had that white opacity which was in fact calcareous matter, like shells and corals, and many of the rocks and minerals in the earth. But I have not yet told you fully and clearly the chemical history of this substance, carbonic acid, as we have it from the candle, and I must now resume that subject. We have seen the products, and the nature of them, as they issue from the candle. We have traced the water to its elements, and now we have to see where are the elements of the carbonic acid supplied by the candle. A few experiments will show this. You remember that when a candle burns badly it produces smoke; but if it is burning well there is no smoke. And you know that the brightness of the candle is due to this smoke, which becomes ignited. Here is an experiment to prove this: so long as the smoke remains in the flame of the candle and becomes ignited, it gives a beautiful light, and never appears to us in the form of black particles. I will light some fuel which is extravagant in its burning. This will serve our purpose—a little turpentine on a sponge. You see the smoke rising from it, and floating into the air in large quantities; and remember now, the carbonic acid that we have from the candle is from such smoke as that. To make that evident to you, I will introduce this turpentine burning on the sponge into a flask where I have plenty of oxygen, the rich part of the atmosphere, and you now see that the smoke is all consumed. This is the first part of our experiment; and now, what follows? The carbon which you saw flying off from the turpentine flame in the air is now entirely burned in this oxygen, and we shall find that it will, by this rough and temporary experiment, give us exactly the same conclusion and result as we had from the combustion of the candle. The reason why I make the experiment in this manner is solely that I may cause the steps of our demonstration to be so simple that you can never for a moment lose the train of reasoning, if you only pay attention. All the carbon which is burned in oxygen, or air, comes out as carbonic acid, while those particles which are not so burned show you the second substance in the carbonic acid,—namely, the carbon—that body which made the flame so bright while there was plenty of air, but which was thrown off in excess when there was not oxygen enough to burn it.

I have also to show you a little more distinctly the history of carbon and oxygen in their union to make carbonic acid. You are now better able to understand this than before, and I have prepared three or four experiments by way of illustration. This jar is filled with oxygen, and here is some carbon which has been placed in a crucible for the purpose of being made red-hot. I keep my jar dry, and venture to give you a result imperfect in some degree, in order that I may make the experiment brighter. I am about to put the oxygen and the carbon together. That this is carbon (common charcoal pulverized) you will see by the way in which it burns in the air [letting some of the red—hot charcoal fall out of the crucible]. I am now about to burn it in oxygen gas, and look at the difference. It may appear to you at a distance as if it were burning with a flame; but it is not so. Every little piece of charcoal is burning as a spark, and while it so burns it is producing carbonic acid. I specially want these two or three experiments to point out what I shall dwell upon more distinctly by-and-by—that carbon burns in this way, and not as a flame.

Instead of taking many particles of carbon to burn, I will take a rather large piece, which will enable you to see the form and size, and to trace the effects very decidedly. Here is the jar of oxygen, and here is the piece of charcoal, to which I have fastened a little piece of wood, which I can set fire to, and so commence the combustion, which I could not conveniently do without. You now see the charcoal burning, but not as a flame (or if there be a flame it is the smallest possible one, which I know the cause of, namely, the formation of a little carbonic oxide close upon the surface of the carbon). It goes on burning, you see, slowly producing carbonic acid by the union of this carbon or charcoal (they are equivalent terms) with the oxygen. I have here another piece of charcoal, a piece of bark, which has the quality of being blown to pieces—exploding—as it burns. By the effect of the heat we shall reduce the lump of carbon into particles that will fly off; still every particle, equally with the whole mass, burns in this peculiar way—it burns as a coal and not like a flame. You observe a multitude of little combustions going on, but no flame. I do not know a finer experiment than this to show that carbon burns with a park.

Here, then, is carbonic acid formed from its elements. It is produced at once; and if we examined it by lime-water you will see that we have the same substance which I have previously described to you. By putting together 6 parts of carbon by weight (whether it comes from the flame of a candle or from powdered charcoal) and 16 parts of oxygen by weight, we have 22 parts of carbonic acid; and, as we saw last time, the 22 parts of carbonic acid combined with 28 parts of lime, product common carbonate of lime. If you were to examine an oyster-shell and weigh the component parts, you would find that every 50 parts would give 6 of carbon and 16 of oxygen combined with 28 of lime. However, I do not want to trouble you with these minutiae; it is only the general philosophy of the matter that we can now go into. See how finely the carbon is dissolving away [pointing to the lump of charcoal burning quietly in the jar of oxygen]. You may say that the charcoal is actually dissolving in the air round about; and if that were perfectly pure charcoal, which we can easily prepare, there would be no residue whatever. When we have a perfectly cleansed and purified piece of carbon, there is no ash left. The carbon burns as a solid dense body, that heat alone can not change as to its solidity, and yet it passes away into vapor that never condenses into solid or liquid under ordinary circumstances; and what is more curious still is the fact that the oxygen does not change in its bulk by the solution of the carbon in it. Just as the bulk is at first, so it is at last, only it has become carbonic acid.

There is another experiment which I must give you before you are fully acquainted with the general nature of carbonic acid. Being a compound body, consisting of carbon and oxygen, carbonic acid is a body that we ought to be able to take asunder. And so we can. As we did with water, so we can with carbonic acid—take the two parts asunder. The simplest and quickest way is to act upon the carbonic acid by a substance that can attract the oxygen from it, and leave the carbon behind. You recollect that I took potassium and put it upon water or ice, and you saw that it could take the oxygen from the hydrogen. Now, suppose we do something of the same kind here with this carbonic acid. You know carbonic acid to be a heavy gas. I will not test it with lime-water, as that will interfere with our subsequent experiments, but I think the heaviness of the gas and the power of extinguishing flame will be sufficient for our purpose. I introduce a flame into the gas, and you will see whether it will be put out. You see the light is extinguished. Indeed, the gas may, perhaps, put out phosphorus, which you know has a pretty strong combustion. Here is a piece of phosphorus heated to a high degree. I introduce it into gas, and you observe the light is put out, but it will take fire again in the air, because there it re-enters into combustion. Now let me take a piece of potassium, a substance which even at common temperatures can act upon carbonic acid, though not sufficiently for our present purpose, because it soon gets covered with a protecting coat; but if we warm it up to the burning point in air, as we have a fair right to do, and as we have done with phosphorus, you will see that it can burn in carbonic acid; and if it burns, it will burn by taking oxygen, so that you will see what is left behind. I am going, then, to burn this potassium in the carbonic acid, as a proof of the existence of oxygen in the carbonic acid. [In the preliminary process of heating the potassium exploded.] Sometimes we get an awkward piece of potassium that explodes, or something like it, when it burns. I will take another piece, and now that it is heated I introduce it into the jar, and you perceive that it burns in the carbonic acid—not so well as in the air, because the carbonic acid contains the oxygen combined; but it does burn, and takes away the oxygen. If I now put this potassium into water, I find that besides the potash formed (which you need not trouble about) there is a quantity of carbon produced. I have here made the experiment in a very rough way, but I assure you that if I were to make it carefully, devoting a day to it instead of five minutes, we should get all the proper amount of charcoal left in the spoon, or in the place where the potassium was burned, so that there could be no doubt as to the result. Here, then, is the carbon obtained from the carbonic acid, as a common black substance; so that you have the entire proof of the nature of carbonic acid as consisting of carbon and oxygen. And now I may tell you, that whenever carbon burns under common circumstances it produces carbonic acid.

Suppose I take this piece of wood, and put it into a bottle with lime—water. I might shake that lime-water up with wood and the atmosphere as long as I pleased, it would still remain clear as you see it; but suppose I burn the piece of wood in the air of that bottle. You, of course, know I get water. Do I get carbonic acid? [The experiment was performed.] There it is, you see—that is to say, the carbonate of lime, which results from carbonic acid, and that carbonic acid must be formed from the carbon which comes from the wood, from the candle, or any other thing. Indeed, you have yourselves frequently tried a very pretty experiment, by which you may see the carbon in wood. If you take a piece of wood, and partly burn it, and then blow it out, you have carbon left. There are things that do not show carbon in this way. A candle does not so show it, but it contains carbon. Here also is a jar of coal gas, which produces carbonic acid abundantly; you do not see the carbon, but we can soon show it to you. I will light it, and as long as there is any gas in the cylinder it will go on burning. You see no carbon, but you see a flame, and because that is bright it will lead you to guess that there is carbon in the flame. But I will show it to you by another process. I have some so the same gas in another vessel, mixed with a body that will burn the hydrogen of the gas, but will not burn the carbon. I will light them with a burning taper, and you perceive the hydrogen is consumed, but not the carbon, which is left behind as a dense black smoke. I hope that by these three or four experiments you will learn to see when carbon is present, and understand what are the products of combustion when gas or other bodies are thoroughly burned in the air.

Before we leave the subject of carbon, let us make a few experiments and remarks upon its wonderful condition as respects ordinary combustion. I have shown you that the carbon, in burning burns only as a solid body, and yet you perceive that, after it is burned, it ceases to be a solid. There are very few fuels that act like this. It is, in fact, only that great source of fuel, the carbonaceous series, the coals, charcoals, and woods, that can do it. I do not know that there is any other elementary substance besides carbon that burns with these conditions; and if it had not been so, what would happen to us? Suppose all fuel had been like iron, which, when it burns, burns into a solid substance. We could not then have such a combustion as you have in this fireplace. Here also is another kind of fuel which burns very-well as, if not better, than carbon—so well, indeed, as to take fire of itself when it is in the air, as you see [breaking a tube full of lead pyrophorus]. This substance is lead, and you see how wonderfully combustible it is. It is very much divided, and is like a heap of coals in the fireplace; the air can get to its surface and inside, and so it burns. But why does it burn in that way now, when it is lying in a mass? [emptying the contents of the tube in a heap on to a plate of iron.] Simply because the air can not get to it. Though it can produce a great heat, the great heat which we want in our furnaces and under our boilers, still that which is produced can not get away from the portion which remains unburned underneath, and that portion, therefore, is prevented from coming in contact with the atmosphere, and can not be consumed. How different is that from carbon! Carbon burns just in the same way as this lead does, and so gives an intense fire in the furnace, or wherever you choose to burn it; but then the body produced by its combustion passes away, and the remaining carbon is left clear. I showed you how carbon went on dissolving in the oxygen, leaving no ash, whereas here [pointing to the heap of pyrophorus] we have actually more ash than fuel, for it is heavier by the amount of the oxygen which has united with it. Thus you see the difference between carbon and lead or iron—if we choose iron, which gives so wonderful a result in our applications of this fuel, either as light or heat. If, when the carbon burnt, the product went off as a solid body, you would have had the room filled with an opaque substance, as in the case of the phosphorus; but when carbon burns, every thing passes up into the atmosphere. It is in a fixed, almost unchangeable condition before the combustion; but afterward it is in the form of gas, which it is very difficult (though we have succeeded) to produce in a solid or liquid state.

Now I must take you to a very interesting part of our subject—to the relation between the combustion of a candle and that living kind of combustion which goes on within us. In every one of us there is a living process of combustion going on very similar to that of a candle, and I must try to make that plain to you. For it is not merely true in a poetical sense—the relation of the life of man to a taper; and if you will follow, I think I can make this clear. In order to make the relation very plain, I have devised a little apparatus which we can soon build up before you. Here is a board, and a groove cut in it, and I can close the groove at the top part by a little cover; I can then continue the groove as a channel by a glass tube at each end, there being a free passage through the whole. Suppose I take a taper or candle (we can now be liberal in our use of the word “candle,” since we understand what it means), and place it in one of the tubes; it will go on, you see, burning very well. You observe that the air which feeds the flame passes down the tube at one end, then goes along the horizontal tube, and ascends the tube at the other end in which the taper is placed. If I stop the aperture through which the air enters, I stop combustion, as you perceive. I stop the supply of air, and consequently the candle goes out. But now what will you think of this fact? In a former experiment I showed you the air going from one burning candle to a second candle. If I took the air proceeding from another candle, and sent it down by a complicated arrangement into this tube, I should put this burning candle out. But what will you say when I tell you that my breath will put out the candle? I do not mean by blowing at all, but simply that the nature of my breath is such that a candle can not burn in it. I will now hold my mouth over the aperture, and without blowing the flame in any way, let no air enter the tube but what comes from my mouth. You see the result. I did not blow the candle out. I merely let the air which I expired pass into the aperture, and the result was that the light went out for want of oxygen, and for no other reason. Something or other—namely, my lungs—had taken away the oxygen from the air and there was no more to supply combustion of the candle. It is, I think, very pretty to see the time it takes before the bad air which I throw into this part of the apparatus has reached the candle. The candle at first goes on burning, but so soon as the air has had time to reach it, it goes out. And now I will show you another experiment, because this is an important part of our philosophy. Here is a jar which contains fresh air, as you can seen by the circumstance of a candle or gas light burning it. I make it close for a little time, and by means of a pipe I get my mouth over it so that I can inhale the air. By putting it over water, in the way that you see, I am able to draw up this air (supposing the cork to be quite tight), take it into my lungs, and throw it back into the jar: we can then examine it, and see the result. You observe, I first take up the air, and then throw it back, as is evident from the ascent and descent of the water; and now, by putting a taper into the air, you will see the state in which it is, by the light being extinguished. Even one inspiration, you see, has completely spoiled this air, so that it is no use my trying to breathe it a second time. Now you understand the ground of the impropriety of many of the arrangements among the houses of the poorer classes, by which the air is breathed over and over again for the want of a supply, by means of proper ventilation, sufficient to produce a good result. You see how bad the air becomes by a single breathing, so that you can easily understand how essential fresh air is to us.

To pursue this a little farther, let us see what will happen with lime—water. Here is a globe which contains a little lime-water, and it is so arranged as regards the pipes, as to give access to the air within, so that we can ascertain the effect of respired or unrespired air upon it. Of course I can either draw in air (through A), and so make the air that feeds my lungs go through the lime-water, or I can force the air out of my lungs through the tube (B), which goes to the bottom, and so show its effect upon the lime—water. You will observe that however long I draw the external air into the lime-water and then through it to my lungs, I shall produce no effect upon the water—it will not make the lime-water turbid; but if I throw the air from my lungs through the lime-water several times is succession, you see how white the milky the water is getting showing the effect which expired air has had upon it; and now you begin to know that the atmosphere which we have spoiled by respiration is spoiled by carbonic acid, for you see it here in contact with the lime-water.

I have here two bottles, one containing lime-water and the other common water, and tubes which pass into the bottles and connect them. The apparatus is very rough, but it is useful notwithstanding. If I take these two bottles, inhaling here and exhaling there, the arrangement of the tubes will prevent the air going backward. The air coming in will go to my mouth and lungs, and in going out will pass through the lime-water, so that I can go on breathing, and making an experiment very refined in its nature and very good in its results. You will observe that the good air has done nothing to the lime-water; in the other case, nothing has come to the lime-water but my respiration, and you see the difference in the two cases.

Let us now go a little farther. What is all this process going on within us which we can not do without, either day or night, which is provided for by the Author of all things that He has arranged that it shall be independent of all will? If we restrain our respiration, as we can to a certain extent, we should destroy ourselves. When we are asleep the organs of respiration and the parts that are associated with them still go on with their action, so necessary is this process of respiration to us, this contact of the air with the lungs. I must tell you, in the briefest possible manner, what this process is. We consume food; the food goes through that strange set of vessels and organs within us, and is brought into various parts of the system, into the digestive parts especially; and alternately the portion which is so changed is carried through our lungs by one set of vessels, while the air that we inhale and exhale is drawn into and thrown out of the lungs by another set of vessels, so that the air and the food come close together, separated only by an exceedingly thin surface; the air can thus act upon the blood by this process, producing precisely the same results in kind as we have seen in the case of the candle. The candle combines with parts of the air, forming carbonic acid, and evolves heat; so in the lungs there is this curious, wonderful change taking place. The air entering, combines with the carbon (not carbon in a free state, but, as in this case, placed ready for action at the moment), and makes carbonic acid and is so thrown out into the atmosphere, and thus this singular result takes place; we may thus look upon the food as fuel. Let me take that piece of sugar, which will serve my purpose. It is a compound of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, similar to a candle, as containing the same elements, though not in the same proportion, the proportions being as shown in this table:

  • SUGAR.
  • Carbon72
  • This is, indeed, a very curious thing, which you can well remember, for the oxygen and hydrogen are in exactly the proportions which form water, so that sugar may be said to be compounded of 72 parts of carbon and 99 parts of water; and it is the carbon in the sugar that combines with the oxygen carried in by the air in the process of respiration—so making us like candles—producing these actions, warmth, and far more wonderful results besides, for the sustenance of the system, by a most beautiful and simple process. To make this still more striking, I will take a little sugar; or, to hasten the experiment, I will use some sirup, which contains about three-fourths of sugar and a little water. If I put a little oil of vitriol on it, it takes away the water, and leaves the carbon in a black mass. [The lecturer mixed the two together.] You see how the carbon is coming out, and before long we shall have a solid mass of charcoal, all of which has come out of sugar. Sugar, as you know, is food, and here we have absolutely a solid lump of carbon where you would not have expected it. And if I make arrangements so as to oxidize the carbon of sugar we shall have a much more striking result. Here is sugar, and I have here an oxidizer—a quicker one than the atmosphere; and so we shall oxidize this fuel by a process different from respiration in its form, though not different in its kind. It is the combustion of the carbon by the contact of oxygen which the body has supplied to it. If I set this into action at once, you will see combustion produced. Just what occurs in my lungs—taking in oxygen from another source, namely, the atmosphere—takes place here by a more rapid process.

    You will be astonished when I tell you what this curious play of carbon amounts to. A candle will burn some four, five, six, or seven hours. What, then, must be the daily amount of carbon going up into the air in the way of carbonic acid! What a quantity of carbon must go from each of us in respiration! What a wonderful change of carbon must take place under these circumstances of combustion or respiration! A man in twenty-four hours converts as much as seven ounces of carbon into carbonic acid; a milch cow will convert seventy ounces, and a horse seventy-nine ounces, solely by the act of respiration. That is, the horse in twenty-four hours burns seventy—nine ounces of charcoal, or carbon, in his organs of respiration to supply his natural warmth in that time. All the warm-blooded animals get their warmth in this way, by the conversion of carbon, not in a free state, but in a state of combination. And what an extraordinary notion this gives us of the alterations going on in our atmosphere. As much as 5,000,000 pounds, or 548 tons, of carbonic acid is formed by respiration in London alone in twenty—four hours. And where does all this go? Up into the air. If the carbon had been like the lead which I showed you, or the iron which, in burning, produces a solid substance, what would happen? Combustion could not go on. As charcoal burns it becomes a vapor and passes off into the atmosphere, which is the great vehicle, the great carrier for conveying it away to other places. Then what becomes of it? Wonderful is it to find that the change produced by respiration, which seems so injurious to us (for we can not breathe air twice over), is the very life and support of plants and vegetables that grow upon the surface of the earth. It is the same also under the surface, in the great bodies of water; for fishes and other animals respire upon the same principle, though not exactly by contact with the open air.

    Such fish as I have here [pointing to a globe of goldfish] respire by the oxygen which is dissolved from the air by the water, and form carbonic acid, and they all move about to produce the one great work of making the animal and vegetable kingdoms subservient to each other. And all the plants growing upon the surface of the earth, like that which I have brought here to serve as an illustration, absorb carbon; these leaves are taking up their carbon from the atmosphere to which we have given it in the form of carbonic acid, and they are growing and prospering. Give them a pure air like ours, and they could not live in it; give them carbon with other matters, and they live and rejoice. This piece of wood gets all its carbon, as the trees and plants get theirs, from the atmosphere, which, as we have seen, carries away what is bad for us and at the same time good for them—what is disease to the one being health to the other. So are we made dependent not merely upon our fellow-creatures, but upon our fellow-existers, all Nature being tied together by the laws that make one part conduce to the good of another.

    There is another little point which I must mention before we draw to a close—a point which concerns the whole of these operations, and most curious and beautiful it is to see it clustering upon and associated with the bodies that concern us—oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon, in different states of their existence. I showed you just now some powdered lead, which I set burning (); and you saw that the moment the fuel was brought to the air, it acted, even before it got out of the bottle—the moment the air crept in, it acted. Now there is a case of chemical affinity by which all our operations proceed. When we breathe, the same operation is going on within us. When we burn a candle, the attraction of the different parts one to the other is going on. Here it is going on in this case of the lead, and it is beautiful instance of chemical affinity. If the products of combustion rose off from the surface, the lead would take fire, and go on burning to the end; but you remember that we have this difference between charcoal and lead—that, while the lead can start into action at once if there be access of air to it, the carbon will remain days, weeks, months, or years. The manuscripts of Herculaneum were written with carbonaceous ink, and there they have been for 1,800 years or more, not having been at all changed by the atmosphere, though coming in contact with it under various circumstances. Now, what is the circumstance which makes the lead and carbon differ in this respect? It is a striking thing to see that the matter which is appointed to serve the purpose of fuel waits in its action; it does not start off burning, like the lead and many other things that I could show you, but which I have not encumbered the table with; but it waits for action. This waiting is a curious and wonderful thing. Candles—those Japanese candles, for instance—do not start into action at once like the lead or iron (for iron finely divided does the same thing as lead), but there they wait for years, perhaps for ages, without undergoing any alteration. I have here a supply of coal gas. The jet is giving forth the gas, but you see it does not take fire—it comes out into the air, but it waits till it is hot enough before it burns. If I make it hot enough, it takes fire. If I blow it out, the gas that is issuing forth waits till the light is applied to it again. It is curious to see how different substances wait—how some will wait till the temperature is raised a little, and others till it is raised a good deal. I have here a little gunpowder and some guncotton; even these things differ in the conditions under which they will burn. The gunpowder is composed of carbon and other substances, making it highly combustible; and the guncotton is another combustible preparation. They are both waiting, but they will start into activity at different degrees of heat, or under different conditions. By applying a heated wire to them, we shall see which will start first [touching the guncotton with the hot iron]. You see the guncotton has gone off, but not even the hottest part of the wire is now hot enough to fire the gunpowder. How beautifully that shows you the difference in the degree in which bodies act in this way! In the one case the substance will wait any time until the associated bodies are made active by heat; but in the other, as in the process of respiration, it waits no time. In the lungs, as soon as the air enters, it unites with the carbon; even in the lowest temperature which the body can bear short of being frozen, the action begins at once, producing the carbonic acid of respiration; and so all things go on fitly and properly. Thus you see the analogy between respiration and combustion is rendered still more beautiful and striking. Indeed, all I can say to you at the end of these lectures (for we must come to an end at one time or other) is to express a wish that you may, in your generation, be fit to compare to a candle; that your may like it, shine as lights to those about you; that, in all your actions, you may justify the beauty of the taper by making your deeds honorable and effectual in the discharge of your duty to your fellow-men.