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May 28, 2016

Henry Cavendish was one of the wealthiest men in England, which gave him plenty of time to purse his passion: science. But he also was antisocial; he often waited until after meetings of the Royal Society were under way to enter the room so he could slip in unnoticed.

Despite that shyness, though, his first published paper was read to the Society 250 years ago tomorrow. It reported the details of “inflammable air” — a gas that’s lightweight but highly combustible. It marked the discovery of a new chemical element: hydrogen.

It’s the most abundant element in the universe, and the third-most abundant at Earth’s surface. Yet it hadn’t been “discovered” as a separate chemical element because it almost never appears in its pure form on Earth. Instead, it’s bound to other elements to make water, hydrocarbons, and other substances.

Other scientists had seen hydrogen before Cavendish did. But they didn’t conduct the experiments needed to understand its nature.

Cavendish dropped bits of iron, tin, and zinc into vats of acid. Chemical reactions produced a gas, which Cavendish collected. He then weighed the gas, tested its flammability, and conducted other measurements. Those experiments showed that the gas was a separate chemical element.

Later experiments showed that “burning” the element produced water. So another scientist named the new element “hydrogen” — a word that means “water forming.”

We’ll have more about hydrogen tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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