Henry Cavendish

During the 18th century, Henry Cavendish conducted a series of highly accurate experiments, in chemistry and physics, leading to discoveries such as hydrogen and the density of the Earth.

Henry Cavendish

Henry Cavendish

Henry Cavendish was born on 10 October 1731 in Nice, France. He was the eldest child of Charles Cavendish, third son of the Duke of Devonshire, and Anne Grey, fourth daughter of the Duke of Kent. His mother died just before his second birthday leaving his father to bring up Henry and his younger brother, Frederick.

After schooling at the Hackney Academy and study at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, Henry Cavendish was introduced by his father to meetings of the Royal Society of London in 1858. Two years later he was elected to membership of the Royal Society and its club. By 1765 Cavendish was an active member of the Royal Society’s Council.

Always a shy man, Cavendish devoted his life to the service of science with a fine attention to detail. His experimental results were always exceptionally accurate and included measurements averaged over multiple experiments.

His first publication in 1766 included details of experiments to isolate hydrogen, or inflammable air as it was then known. Hydrogen had been isolated before, but Cavendish was the first to identify it as an element and is now recognised as its discoverer. For this work he was awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal.

Further experiments followed examining electricity and the nature of heat, and Cavendish continued his work investigating gases. In 1785 he examined the composition of air and calculated the proportions of nitrogen (phlogisticated air) and oxygen (dephlogisticated air) it contained. The volume of gas remaining (1/120 of the original sample) was only identified as mostly argon, an inert gas, over 100 years later.

One of Cavendish’s most famous experiments was carried out in 1798. Using a torsion balance with two stationary and two suspended lead balls, Cavendish produced a calculation for the density of the Earth to within 1 percent of the value accepted today. The method is still known as the Cavendish experiment.

In the early days of modern science, Cavendish was an extremely accurate experimenter with a meticulous attention to detail. He was physically and scientifically active until almost the end of his life, but died on 24 February 1810 in London of inflammation of the colon. He was buried at All Saints’ Church, Derby.

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