Elements of Chemistry, by Antoine Lavoisier

Chapter IV.

Nomenclature of the several Constituent Parts of Atmospheric Air.

Hitherto I have been obliged to make use of circumlocution, to express the nature of the several substances which constitute our atmosphere, having provisionally used the terms of respirable and noxious, or non-respirable parts of the air. But the investigations I mean to undertake require a more direct mode of expression; and, having now endeavoured to give simple and distinct ideas of the different substances which enter into the composition of the atmosphere, I shall henceforth express these ideas by words equally simple.

The temperature of our earth being very near to that at which water becomes solid, and reciprocally changes from solid to fluid, and as this phenomenon takes place frequently under our observation, it has very naturally followed, that, in the languages of at least every climate subjected to any degree of winter, a term has been used for signifying water in the state of solidity, when deprived of its caloric. The same, however, has not been found necessary with respect to water reduced to the state of vapour by an additional dose of caloric; since those persons who do not make a particular study of objects of this kind, are still ignorant that water, when in a temperature only a little above the boiling heat, is changed into an elastic aëriform fluid, susceptible, like all other gasses, of being received and contained in vessels, and preserving its gasseous form so long as it remains at the temperature of 80° (212°), and under a pressure not exceeding 28 inches of the mercurial barometer. As this phenomenon has not been generally observed, no language has used a particular term for expressing water in this state10; and the same thing occurs with all fluids, and all substances, which do not evaporate in the common temperature, and under the usual pressure of our atmosphere.

For similar reasons, names have not been given to the liquid or concrete states of most of the aëriform fluids: These were not known to arise from the combination of caloric with certain bases; and, as they had not been seen either in the liquid or solid states, their existence, under these forms, was even unknown to natural philosophers.

We have not pretended to make any alteration upon such terms as are sanctified by ancient custom; and, therefore, continue to use the words water and ice in their common acceptation: We likewise retain the word air, to express that collection of elastic fluids which composes our atmosphere; but we have not thought it necessary to preserve the same respect for modern terms, adopted by latter philosophers, having considered ourselves as at liberty to reject such as appeared liable to occasion erroneous ideas of the substances they are meant to express, and either to substitute new terms, or to employ the old ones, after modifying them in such a manner as to convey more determinate ideas. New words have been drawn, chiefly from the Greek language, in such a manner as to make their etymology convey some idea of what was meant to be represented; and these we have always endeavoured to make short, and of such a nature as to be changeable into adjectives and verbs.

Following these principles, we have, after Mr Macquer's example, retained the term gas, employed by Vanhelmont, having arranged the numerous class of elastic aëriform fluids under that name, excepting only atmospheric air. Gas, therefore, in our nomenclature, becomes a generic term, expressing the fullest degree of saturation in any body with caloric; being, in fact, a term expressive of a mode of existence. To distinguish each species of gas, we employ a second term from the name of the base, which, saturated with caloric, forms each particular gas. Thus, we name water combined to saturation with caloric, so as to form an elastic fluid, aqueous gas; ether, combined in the same manner, etherial gas; the combination of alkohol with caloric, becomes alkoholic gas; and, following the same principles, we have muriatic acid gas, ammoniacal gas, and so on of every substance susceptible of being combined with caloric, in such a manner as to assume the gasseous or elastic aëriform state.

We have already seen, that the atmospheric air is composed of two gasses, or aëriform fluids, one of which is capable, by respiration, of contributing to animal life, and in which metals are calcinable, and combustible bodies may burn; the other, on the contrary, is endowed with directly opposite qualities; it cannot be breathed by animals, neither will it admit of the combustion of inflammable bodies, nor of the calcination of metals. We have given to the base of the former, or respirable portion of the air, the name of oxygen, from οξυς acidum, and γεινομας, gignor; because, in reality, one of the most general properties of this base is to form acids, by combining with many different substances. The union of this base with caloric we term oxygen gas, which is the same with what was formerly called pure, or vital air. The weight of this gas, at the temperature of 10° (54.50), and under a pressure equal to 28 inches of the barometer, is half a grain for each cubical inch, or one ounce and a half to each cubical foot.

The chemical properties of the noxious portion of atmospheric air being hitherto but little known, we have been satisfied to derive the name of its base from its known quality of killing such animals as are forced to breathe it, giving it the name of azote, from the Greek privitive particle α and ξαη, vita; hence the name of the noxious part of atmospheric air is azotic gas; the weight of which, in the same temperature, and under the same pressure, is 1 oz. 2 gros. and 48 grs. to the cubical foot, or 0.4444 of a grain to the cubical inch. We cannot deny that this name appears somewhat extraordinary; but this must be the case with all new terms, which cannot be expected to become familiar until they have been some time in use. We long endeavoured to find a more proper designation without success; it was at first proposed to call it alkaligen gas, as, from the experiments of Mr Berthollet, it appears to enter into the composition of ammoniac, or volatile alkali; but then, we have as yet no proof of its making one of the constituent elements of the other alkalies; beside, it is proved to compose a part of the nitric acid, which gives as good reason to have called it nitrigen. For these reasons, finding it necessary to reject any name upon systematic principles, we have considered that we run no risk of mistake in adopting the terms of azote, and azotic gas, which only express a matter of fact, or that property which it possesses, of depriving such animals as breathe it of their lives.

I should anticipate subjects more properly reserved for the subsequent chapters, were I in this place to enter upon the nomenclature of the several species of gasses: It is sufficient, in this part of the work, to establish the principles upon which their denominations are founded. The principal merit of the nomenclature we have adopted is, that, when once the simple elementary substance is distinguished by an appropriate term, the names of all its compounds derive readily, and necessarily, from this first denomination.

10 In English, the word steam is exclusively appropriated to water in the state of vapour. E.

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