Elements of Chemistry, by Antoine Lavoisier

Chapter I.

Of the Instruments necessary for determining the Absolute and Specific Gravities of Solid and Liquid Bodies.

The best method hitherto known for determining the quantities of substances submitted to chemical experiment, or resulting from them, is by means of an accurately constructed beam and scales, with properly regulated weights, which well known operation is called weighing. The denomination and quantity of the weights used as an unit or standard for this purpose are extremely arbitrary, and vary not only in different kingdoms, but even in different provinces of the same kingdom, and in different cities of the same province. This variation is of infinite consequence to be well understood in commerce and in the arts; but, in chemistry, it is of no moment what particular denomination of weight be employed, provided the results of experiments be expressed in convenient fractions of the same denomination. For this purpose, until all the weights used in society be reduced to the same standard, it will be sufficient for chemists in different parts to use the common pound of their own country as the unit or standard, and to express all its fractional parts in decimals, instead of the arbitrary divisions now in use. By this means the chemists of all countries will be thoroughly understood by each other, as, although the absolute weights of the ingredients and products cannot be known, they will readily, and without calculation, be able to determine the relative proportions of these to each other with the utmost accuracy; so that in this way we shall be possessed of an universal language for this part of chemistry.

With this view I have long projected to have the pound divided into decimal fractions, and I have of late succeeded through the assistance of Mr Fourche balance-maker at Paris, who has executed it for me with great accuracy and judgment. I recommend to all who carry on experiments to procure similar divisions of the pound, which they will find both easy and simple in its application, with a very small knowledge of decimal fractions54.

As the usefulness and accuracy of chemistry depends entirely upon the determination of the weights of the ingredients and products both before and after experiments, too much precision cannot be employed in this part of the subject; and, for this purpose, we must be provided with good instruments. As we are often obliged, in chemical processes, to ascertain, within a grain or less, the tare or weight of large and heavy instruments, we must have beams made with peculiar niceness by accurate workmen, and these must always be kept apart from the laboratory in some place where the vapours of acids, or other corrosive liquors, cannot have access, otherwise the steel will rust, and the accuracy of the balance be destroyed. I have three sets, of different sizes, made by Mr Fontin with the utmost nicety, and, excepting those made by Mr Ramsden of London, I do not think any can compare with them for precision and sensibility. The largest of these is about three feet long in the beam for large weights, up to fifteen or twenty pounds; the second, for weights of eighteen or twenty ounces, is exact to a tenth part of a grain; and the smallest, calculated only for weighing about one gros, is sensibly affected by the five hundredth part of a grain.

Besides these nicer balances, which are only used for experiments of research, we must have others of less value for the ordinary purposes of the laboratory. A large iron balance, capable of weighing forty or fifty pounds within half a dram, one of a middle size, which may ascertain eight or ten pounds, within ten or twelve grains, and a small one, by which about a pound may be determined, within one grain.

We must likewise be provided with weights divided into their several fractions, both vulgar and decimal, with the utmost nicety, and verified by means of repeated and accurate trials in the nicest scales; and it requires some experience, and to be accurately acquainted with the different weights, to be able to use them properly. The best way of precisely ascertaining the weight of any particular substance is to weigh it twice, once with the decimal divisions of the pound, and another time with the common subdivisions or vulgar fractions, and, by comparing these, we attain the utmost accuracy.

By the specific gravity of any substance is understood the quotient of its absolute weight divided by its magnitude, or, what is the same, the weight of a determinate bulk of any body. The weight of a determinate magnitude of water has been generally assumed as unity for this purpose; and we express the specific gravity of gold, sulphuric acid, &c. by saying, that gold is nineteen times, and sulphuric acid twice the weight of water, and so of other bodies.

It is the more convenient to assume water as unity in specific gravities, that those substances whose specific gravity we wish to determine, are most commonly weighed in water for that purpose. Thus, if we wish to determine the specific gravity of gold flattened under the hammer, and supposing the piece of gold to weigh 8 oz. 4 gros 2-1/2 grs. in the air55, it is suspended by means of a fine metallic wire under the scale of a hydrostatic balance, so as to be entirely immersed in water, and again weighed. The piece of gold in Mr Brisson's experiment lost by this means 3 gros 37 grs.; and, as it is evident that the weight lost by a body weighed in water is precisely equal to the weight of the water displaced, or to that of an equal volume of water, we may conclude, that, in equal magnitudes, gold weighs 4893-1/2 grs. and water 253 grs. which, reduced to unity, gives 1.0000 as the specific gravity of water, and 19.3617 for that of gold. We may operate in the same manner with all solid substances. We have rarely any occasion, in chemistry, to determine the specific gravity of solid bodies, unless when operating upon alloys or metallic glasses; but we have very frequent necessity to ascertain that of fluids, as it is often the only means of judging of their purity or degree of concentration.

This object may be very fully accomplished with the hydrostatic balance, by weighing a solid body; such, for example, as a little ball of rock cristal suspended by a very fine gold wire, first in the air, and afterwards in the fluid whose specific gravity we wish to discover. The weight lost by the cristal, when weighed in the liquor, is equal to that of an equal bulk of the liquid. By repeating this operation successively in water and different fluids, we can very readily ascertain, by a simple and easy calculation, the relative specific gravities of these fluids, either with respect to each other or to water. This method is not, however, sufficiently exact, or, at least, is rather troublesome, from its extreme delicacy, when used for liquids differing but little in specific gravity from water; such, for instance, as mineral waters, or any other water containing very small portions of salt in solution.

In some operations of this nature, which have not hitherto been made public, I employed an instrument of great sensibility for this purpose with great advantage. It consists of a hollow cylinder, A b c f, Pl. vii. fig. 6. of brass, or rather of silver, loaded at its bottom, b c f, with tin, as represented swimming in a jug of water, l m n o. To the upper part of the cylinder is attached a stalk of silver wire, not more than three fourths of a line diameter, surmounted by a little cup d, intended for containing weights; upon the stalk a mark is made at g, the use of which we shall presently explain. This cylinder may be made of any size; but, to be accurate, ought at least to displace four pounds of water. The weight of tin with which this instrument is loaded ought to be such as will make it remain almost in equilibrium in distilled water, and should not require more than half a dram, or a dram at most, to make it sink to g.

We must first determine, with great precision, the exact weight of the instrument, and the number of additional grains requisite for making it sink, in distilled water of a determinate temperature, to the mark: We then perform the same experiment upon all the fluids of which we wish to ascertain the specific gravity, and, by means of calculation, reduce the observed differences to a common standard of cubic feet, pints or pounds, or of decimal fractions, comparing them with water. This method, joined to experiments with certain reagents56, is one of the best for determining the quality of waters, and is even capable of pointing out differences which escape the most accurate chemical analysis. I shall, at some future period, give an account of a very extensive set of experiments which I have made upon this subject.

These metallic hydrometers are only to be used for determining the specific gravities of such waters as contain only neutral salts or alkaline substances; and they may be constructed with different degrees of ballast for alkohol and other spiritous liquors. When the specific gravities of acid liquors are to be ascertained, we must use a glass hydrometer, as represented Pl. vii. fig. 1457. This consists of a hollow cylinder of glass, a b c f, hermetically sealed at its lower end, and drawn out at the upper into a capillary tube a, ending in the little cup or bason d. This instrument is ballasted with more or less mercury, at the bottom of the cylinder introduced through the tube, in proportion to the weight of the liquor intended to be examined: We may introduce a small graduated slip of paper into the tube a d; and, though these degrees do not exactly correspond to the fractions of grains in the different liquors, they may be rendered very useful in calculation.

What is said in this chapter may suffice, without farther enlargement, for indicating the means of ascertaining the absolute and specific gravities of solids and fluids, as the necessary instruments are generally known, and may easily be procured: But, as the instruments I have used for measuring the gasses are not any where described, I shall give a more detailed account of these in the following chapter.

54 Mr Lavoisier gives, in this part of his work, very accurate directions for reducing the common subdivisions of the French pound into decimal fractions, and vice versa, by means of tables subjoined to this 3d part. As these instructions, and the table, would be useless to the British chemist, from the difference between the subdivisions of the French and Troy pounds, I have omitted them, but have subjoined in the appendix accurate rules for converting the one into the other. — E.

55 Vide Mr Brisson's Essay upon Specific Gravity, p. 5. — A.

56 For the use of these reagents see Bergman's excellent treatise upon the analysis of mineral waters, in his Chemical and Physical Essays. — E.

57 Three or four years ago, I have seen similar glass hydrometers, made for Dr Black by B. Knie, a very ingenious artist of this city. — E.


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