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Airship Gases - Hydrogen - Early Developments - 1525-1785

Named by Lavoisier (Gr. hydro: water, and genes: forming), hydrogen is the most abundant of all elements in the universe. Hydrogen gas is so light that, uncombined, hydrogen will gain enough velocity from collisions with other gases that they will quickly be ejected from the atmosphere. On earth, hydrogen occurs chiefly in combination with oxygen in water, but it is also present in organic matter such as living plants, petroleum, coal, etc. It is present as the free element in the atmosphere, but only less than 1 ppm by volume. The lightest of all gases, hydrogen combines with other elements -- sometimes explosively -- to form compounds.

Paracelsus (1493-1541), an alchemist born near Zurich, may have been the first to observe what is now known as hydrogen gas. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was a Swiss citizen later adopted the Latin name Paracelsus, a name invented by himself to indicate that he was greater than Celsus. During the first half of the 16th century, Paracelsus traveled throughout Europe and to Asia and Egypt, curing people with his concoctions. He experimented with new plants in search of more treatment and solutions. The first scientific approach to the understanding of poisons and toxicology was the work during the late middle ages of Paracelsus. He formulated what were then revolutionary views that a specific toxic agent or "toxicon" caused specific dose-related effects. He also acquired in the mines in the Tyrol belonging to the Fugger family a practical acquaintance with minerals. The existence of the "inflammable air" was known many years ago, especially to miners, who had frequently experienced the fatal effects of its combustion in subterraneous places.

He has been credited with an enormous number of works explanatory of his system, which was a mixture of mysticism, charlatanism, and useful empiricism. His influence was great, and men turned from attempts to make the philosopher.s stone to a more practical study of chemical substances. Paracelsus, an outstanding physician and chemist to whom some historians ascribe the discovery of hydrogen, also described a series of observations on the spontaneous generation of mice, frogs, eels and turtles from water, air, straw and decaying wood, among other things. It is asserted on his behalf that he discovered zinc, hydrogen gas, and the tincture of opium. Paracelsus remarked the disengagement of gas when iron was dissolved in sulphuric acid. Paracelsus noted the fact that when iron was treated with a dilute acid " an air rises which bursts forth like the wind."

In 1766 English chemist Henry Cavendish announced his discovery of hydrogen, which he terms "inflammable air". This learned philosopher observed, that inflammable air ws, at least, seven times lighter than common air. Hydrogen was prepared many years before it was recognized as a distinct substance by Cavendish, who discovered that hydrogen was many times lighter than air. Henry Cavendish was a strange little man who was unnaturally shy. He couldn't stand looking anyone in the face. He was unable to bear meeting more than one person at a time, and ran away if too many people came near him. When he had to go out, he sat in the shadows of his carriage so that no one could see him. He wore the same old-fashioned outfit day after day. And he never, ever spoke to a woman. And yet Cavendish was also a brilliant man who made one of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century - hydrogen, among other things.

Americans are taught that Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen in 1774 and promptly brought that news to Lavoisier. Lavoisier proved that air contained a new element, oxygen, which combined with hydrogen to make water. He disproved the phlogiston theory but Priestley called it dephlogisticated air until his death 30 years later. Scandanavians learn that a Swedish apothecary Carl Wilhelm Scheele beat Priestley by 2 years but was deprived of credit because Lavoisier denied receiving a letter Scheele later claimed to have sent in September 1774 describing his 1772 discovery of "fire air".

Priestley was a teacher, political philosopher, essayist, Unitarian minister and pioneer in chemical and electrical science. He discovered 9 gases including nitrous oxide. He invented soda water, refrigeration, and gum erasers for which he coined the term "rubber". He discovered photosynthesis. He was humorless, argumentative, brilliant and passionate. A Birmingham mob, supported by the royalists and the established church, destroyed Priestley's home, laboratory and church. Driven from England, he emigrated to Pennsylvania where he built a home and laboratory and collected a 1600 volume library, then among the largest in America. He is regarded as a founder of liberal Unitarian thinking. He was friend and correspondent of Thomas Jefferson.

Black and Cavendish, in 1766, showed that carbonic acid (fixed air) and hydrogen gas (combustible air) were specifically distinct aeriform fluids. When Cavendish, in 1766, ascertained the specific gravity of hydrogen gas, it occurred to Dr Black, that it might be employed to raise weights in the atmosphere. Dr. Joseph Black [1728-1799], an Edinburgh chemist, suggested the use of hydrogen for balloons, an idea shortly after put into practical use in 1767 [according to some reports], when Black filled a bag with hydrogen, which rose to the ceiling of the room.

Black procured the alantois [or allantois, an extra-embryonic membrane of the embryos of mammals, birds, and reptiles, serving to connect the fetus with the parent, which expands to form a large sac] of a calf, filled it with hydrogen gas, and found, that the bag, thus filled, was lighter than air, and would rise to the ceiling of the room. He invited a number of his friends to supper, and told them, that he had a cariosity to shew them. When the company met, he produced his prepared alantoie, and, to the surprise of all present, it ascended, and remained attached to the ceiling of the room. At first, they supposed that a fine thread had been attached to it, and that some person in the room above had drawn it by that means to the ceiling. But an actual inspection convinced them, that this solution was erroneous. Dr Black then explained to them the way in which it was filled, and pointed out the useful purposes to which such contrivances might be applied.

The idea was later put into use in 1782 by Tiberius Cavallo in the form of small hydrogen soap bubbles which rose beautifully in the air. Cavallo was the author of "The history and practice of aerostation" published in 1785. Cavallo reports that Black never actually tried the experiment; nor did he know that any otherperson attempted it, before his experiments on this subject, which were made in the year i782. Cavallo reports that "the only success I had, was to let soap-balls, filled with inflammable air, ascend by themselves rapidly into the atmosphere; which was perhaps the first sort of inflammable-air balloons ever made. I failed in several other attempts of the like nature; and, at last, being tired with the expences and loss of time, I deferred to some other time the prosecuting of those experiments. ... I tried bladders, the thinnest and largest that could be procured. Some of them were cleaned with great care, removing from them all the superfluous membranes, and other matter, that could be possibly scraped off; but, notwithstanding all these precautions, the lightest and largest of these prepared bladders being gaged, and the requisite calculation made, it was found, that, when filled with inflammable air, it would be, at least, ten grains heavier than an equal bulk of common air, and consequently it would descend, instead of ascending, in that element."

The Brothers Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier sent up the first balloon at Avignon by means of hot air. Stephen Montgolfier, the eldest of the two brothers, made the first aerostatic experiment at Avignon, towards the middle of November 1782. The machine consisted of a bag of fine silk, in the shape of a parallelopipedon, the capacity of which was equal to about 40 cubic feet. Burning paper applied to its aperture served to rarefy the air, or to form the cloud; and when this was sufficiently expanded, the machine ascended.

On September 19, 1783, the Montgolfiers repeated at Paris the experiment made at Annonay, and were again successful. This time they suspended from their balloon a cage containing a sheep, a cock, and a duck. These - the pioneer aerial travellers - returned safely to earth. The first human beings to go up in a free balloon were the Pilatre de Rozier, on October 15, 1783, in a captive balloon, i.e., a balloon attached to the ground by ropes. The first human beings to go up in a free balloon were the same Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes, on November 21, 1783.

No sooner had the news of Montgolfier's aerostatic experiment reached Paris, than the scientific people of that metropolis began to think of repeating so singular an experiment. They justly concluded, that inflammable air would answer much better, and immediately resolved to try the experiment with inflammable air. A subscription was immediately opened by Mr. Faujas de Saint-Fond, to defray the expences attending the experiment. J.A.C. Charles, Professor of experimental philosophy at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, at Paris, substituted hydrogen for the heated air in the balloon, in concert with the Brothers Robert, skilful mechanicians. The diameter of this bag, which, from its ball-like shape, was called a Balloon, and gave the name of air-balloons to those flying machines in general, was twelve feet two inches French, or about thirteen feet English measure. On February 27, 1783, The Globe rose from the Champs de Mars, 3000 feet. Franklin was present at the ascension. "Very fine!" said one of the spectators. "But what's the use of it?" "What's the use of a baby?" retorted Franklin.

On August 27, 1783, Charles accomplished the ascent of the first hydrogen balloon in the Champs-Elysees, his invention being known as the Charliere in contradistinction to the Montgolfiere. Both systems were used for the first aerial voyage, the one in November and the other in December of the same year. Previously the balloons had been sentup empty.or only tenanted by some animal. The first aerial navigator, Pilatre de Rozieres, conceived the idea of combining both systems, which was the occasion of his death. The fire in the Mongolfiere was communicated to the hydrogen in the Charliere, and on June 15, 1785, balloon and aeronaut fell shattered on the limestone rocks of the coast, near Boulogne.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:29:11 ZULU