Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794)

selections on caloric and on states of matter from Elements of Chemistry translation by Robert Kerr (Edinburgh, 1790), pp. 3-7, 15, 26-30 [from Maurice Crosland, ed., The Science of Matter: a Historical Survey (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1971)]

[Water below zero] remains solid, and is called ice. Above that degree of temperature, its particles being no longer held together by reciprocal attraction, it becomes liquid; and, when we raise its temperature above 80°[1], its particles, giving way to the repulsion caused by the heat, assume the state of vapour or gas, and the water is changed into an aeriform fluid.

The same may be affirmed of all bodies in nature: they are either solid or liquid, or in the state of elastic aeriform vapour, according to the proportion which takes place between the attractive force inherent in their particles, and the repulsive power of the heat acting uon these; or, what amounts to the same thing, in proportion to the degree of heat to which they are exposed.

It is difficult to comprehend these phenomena without admitting them as the effects of a real and material substance, or very subtle fluid, which, insinuating itself between the particles of bodies, separates them from each other; and, even allowing the existence of this fluid to be hypothetical, we shall see in the sequel, that it explains the phenomena of nature in a very satisfactory manner.

This substance, whatever it is, being the cause of heat, or, in other words, the sensation which we call warmth being caused by the accumulation of this substance, we cannot, in strict language, distinguish it by the term heat; because the same name would then very improperly express both cause and effect: for this reason, in the memoir which I published in 1777, I gave it the names of igneous fluid and matter of heat: And, since that time, in the work published by Mr de Morveau, Mr Berthollet, Mr de Fourcroy, and myself, we thought it necessary to banish all periphrastic expressions, which both lengthen physical language, and render it more tedious and less distinct, and which even frequently does not convey sufficiently just ideas of the subject intended. Wherefore, we have distinguished the cause of heat, or that exquisitely elastic fluid which produces it, by the term of caloric.


What I have already said may suffice to determine the idea affixed to the word caloric; but there remains a more difficult attempt, which is, to give a just conception of the manner in which caloric acts upon other bodies. Since this subtle matter penetrates through the pores of all known substances; since there are no vessels through which it cannot escape, and, consequently, as there are none which are capable of retaining it, we can only come at the knowledge of its properties by effects which are fleeting, and difficulty ascertainable. It is in these things which we neither see nor feel, that it is especially necessary to guard against the extravagancy of our imagination, which forever inclines to step beyond the bounds of truth, and is very difficulty restrained within the narrow line of facts.

We have already seen, that the same body becomes solid, or fluid, or aeriform, according to the quantity of caloric by which it is penetrated; or, to speak more strictly, according as the repulsive force exerted by the caloric is equal to, stronger, or weaker, than the attraction of the particles of the body it acts upon.

All these facts, which could be easily multiplied if necessary, give me full right to assume, as a general principle, that almost every body in nature is susceptible of three several states of existence, solid, liquid, and aeriform, and that these three states of existence depend upon the quantity of caloric combined with the body. Henceforwards I shall express these elastic aeriform fluids by the generic term gas; and in each species of gas I shall distinguish between the caloric, which in some measure serves the purpose of a solvent, and the substance, which in combination with the caloric, forms the base of the gas.


These views which I have taken of the formation of elastic aeriform fluids or gases, throw great light upon the original formation of the atmospheres of the planets, and particularly that of our earth. We readily conceive, that it must necessarily consist of a mixture of the following substances: First, of all bodies that are susceptible of evaporation, or, more strictly speaking, which are capable of retaining the state of aeriform elasticity in the temperature of our atmosphere, and under a pressure equal to that of a column of twenty-eight inches of quicksilver in the barometer; and, secondly, of all substances, whether liquid or solid, which are capable of being dissolved by this mixture of different gases.

The better to determine our ideas relating to this subject, which has not hitherto been sufficiently considered, let us, for a moment, conceive what change would take place in the various substances which compose our earth, if its temperature were suddenly altered. If, for instance, we were suddenly transported into the region of the planet Mercury, where probably the common temperature is much superior to that of boiling water, the water of the earth, and all the other fluids which are susceptible of the gaseous state, at a temperature near to that of boiling water, even quicksilver itself, would become rarefied; and all these substances would be changed into permanent aeriform fluids or gases, which would become part of the new atmosphere. These new species of airs or gases would mix with those already existing, and certain reciprocal decompositions and new combinations would take place, until such time as all the elective attractions or affinities subsisting amongst all these new and old gaseous substances had operated fully: after which, the elementary principles composing these gases, being saturated, would remain at rest. We must attend to this, however, that, even in the above hypothetical situation, certain bounds would occur to the evaporation of these substances, produced by that very evaporation itself; for as, in proportion to the increase of elastic fluids, the pressure of the atmosphere would be augmented, as every degree of pressure tends, in some measure, to prevent evaporation, and as even the most evaporable fluids can resist the operation of a very high temperature without evaporating, if prevented by a proportionally stronger comprehension, water and all other liquids being able to sustain a red heat in Papin's digester; we must admit, that the new atmosphere would at last arrive at such a degree of weight, that the water which had not hitherto evaporated would cease to boil, and, of consequence, would remain liquid; so that, even upon this supposition, as in all other of the same nature, the increasing gravity of the atmosphere would find certain limits which it could not exceed. We might even extend these reflections greatly farther, and examine what change might be produced in such situations upon stones, salts, and the greater part of the fusible substance which compose the mass of the earth. These would be softened, fused, and changed into fluids, etc.: but these speculations carry me from my object, to which I hasten to return.

By a contrary supposition to the one we have been forming, if the earth were suddenly transported into a very cold region, the water which at present composes our seas, rivers, and springs, and probably the greater number of the fluids we are acquainted with, would be converted into solid mountains and hard rocks, at first diaphanous and homogeneous, like rock crystal, but which, in time, becoming mixed with foreign and heterogeneous substances, would become opaque stones of various colours. In this case, the air, or at least some part of the aeriform fluids which now composed the mass of our atmosphere, would doubtless lose its elasticity for want of a sufficient temperature to retain them in that state: they would return to the liquid state of existence, and new liquids would be formed, of whose properties we cannot, at present, form the most distant idea.

These two opposite suppositions give a distinct proof of the following corrollaries: first, that solidity, liquidity and aeriform elasticity are only three different states of existence of the same matter, or three particular modifications which almost all substances are susceptible of assming successively, and which solely depend upon the degree of temperature to which they are exposed; or, in other words, upon the quantity of caloric with which they are penetrated. Secondly, that it is extremely probable that air is a fluid naturally existing in a state of vapour; or, as we may better express it, that our atmosphere is a compound of all the fluids which are susceptible of the vaprous or permanently elastic state, in the usual temperature, and under the common pressure. Thirdly, that it is not impossible we may discover, in our atmosphere, certain substances naturally very compact, even metals themselves; as a metallic substance, for instance, only a little more volatile than mercury, might exist in that situation.

[1]Lavoisier used the Reaumur temperature scale. --CJG
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