Elements of Chemistry, by Antoine Lavoisier

Chapter VI.

Of the Nomenclature of Acids in general, and particularly of those drawn from Nitre and Sea-Salt.

It becomes extremely easy, from the principles laid down in the preceding chapter, to establish a systematic nomenclature for the acids: The word acid, being used as a generic term, each acid falls to be distinguished in language, as in nature, by the name of its base or radical. Thus, we give the generic name of acids to the products of the combustion or oxygenation of phosphorus, of sulphur, and of charcoal; and these products are respectively named, the phosphoric acid, the sulphuric acid, and the carbonic acid.

There is however, a remarkable circumstance in the oxygenation of combustible bodies, and of a part of such bodies as are convertible into acids, that they are susceptible of different degrees of saturation with oxygen, and that the resulting acids, though formed by the union of the same elements, are possessed of different properties, depending upon that difference of proportion. Of this, the phosphoric acid, and more especially the sulphuric, furnishes us with examples. When sulphur is combined with a small proportion of oxygen, it forms, in this first or lower degree of oxygenation, a volatile acid, having a penetrating odour, and possessed of very particular qualities. By a larger proportion of oxygen, it is changed into a fixed, heavy acid, without any odour, and which, by combination with other bodies, gives products quite different from those furnished by the former. In this instance, the principles of our nomenclature seem to fail; and it seems difficult to derive such terms from the name of the acidifiable base, as shall distinctly express these two degrees of saturation, or oxygenation, without circumlocution. By reflection, however, upon the subject, or perhaps rather from the necessity of the case, we have thought it allowable to express these varieties in the oxygenation of the acids, by simply varying the termination of their specific names. The volatile acid produced from sulphur was anciently known to Stahl under the name of sulphurous acid12. We have preserved that term for this acid from sulphur under-saturated with oxygen; and distinguish the other, or completely saturated or oxygenated acid, by the name of sulphuric acid. We shall therefore say, in this new chemical language, that sulphur, in combining with oxygen, is susceptible of two degrees of saturation; that the first, or lesser degree, constitutes sulphurous acid, which is volatile and penetrating; whilst the second, or higher degree of saturation, produces sulphuric acid, which is fixed and inodorous. We shall adopt this difference of termination for all the acids which assume several degrees of saturation. Hence we have a phosphorous and a phosphoric acid, an acetous and an acetic acid; and so on, for others in similar circumstances.

This part of chemical science would have been extremely simple, and the nomenclature of the acids would not have been at all perplexed, as it is now in the old nomenclature, if the base or radical of each acid had been known when the acid itself was discovered. Thus, for instance, phosphorus being a known substance before the discovery of its acid, this latter was rightly distinguished by a term drawn from the name of its acidifiable base. But when, on the contrary, an acid happened to be discovered before its base, or rather, when the acidifiable base from which it was formed remained unknown, names were adopted for the two, which have not the smallest connection; and thus, not only the memory became burthened with useless appellations, but even the minds of students, nay even of experienced chemists, became filled with false ideas, which time and reflection alone is capable of eradicating. We may give an instance of this confusion with respect to the acid sulphur: The former chemists having procured this acid from the vitriol of iron, gave it the name of the vitriolic acid from the name of the substance which produced it; and they were then ignorant that the acid procured from sulphur by combustion was exactly the same.

The same thing happened with the aëriform acid formerly called fixed air; it not being known that this acid was the result of combining charcoal with oxygen, a variety of denominations have been given to it, not one of which conveys just ideas of its nature or origin. We have found it extremely easy to correct and modify the ancient language with respect to these acids proceeding from known bases, having converted the name of vitriolic acid into that of sulphuric, and the name of fixed air into that of carbonic acid; but it is impossible to follow this plan with the acids whose bases are still unknown; with these we have been obliged to use a contrary plan, and, instead of forming the name of the acid from that of its base, have been forced to denominate the unknown base from the name of the known acid, as happens in the case of the acid which is procured from sea salt.

To disengage this acid from the alkaline base with which it is combined, we have only to pour sulphuric acid upon sea-salt, immediately a brisk effervescence takes place, white vapours arise, of a very penetrating odour, and, by only gently heating the mixture, all the acid is driven off. As, in the common temperature and pressure of our atmosphere, this acid is naturally in the state of gas, we must use particular precautions for retaining it in proper vessels. For small experiments, the most simple and most commodious apparatus consists of a small retort G, (Pl. V. Fig. 5.), into which the sea-salt is introduced, well dried13, we then pour on some concentrated sulphuric acid, and immediately introduce the beak of the retort under little jars or bell-glasses A, (same Plate and Fig.), previously filled with quicksilver. In proportion as the acid gas is disengaged, it passes into the jar, and gets to the top of the quicksilver, which it displaces. When the disengagement of the gas slackens, a gentle heat is applied to the retort, and gradually increased till nothing more passes over. This acid gas has a very strong affinity with water, which absorbs an enormous quantity of it, as is proved by introducing a very thin layer of water into the glass which contains the gas; for, in an instant, the whole acid gas disappears, and combines with the water.

This latter circumstance is taken advantage of in laboratories and manufactures, on purpose to obtain the acid of sea-salt in a liquid form; and for this purpose the apparatus (Pl. IV. Fig. 1.) is employed. It consists, 1st, of a tubulated retort A, into which the sea-salt, and after it the sulphuric acid, are introduced through the opening H; 2d, of the baloon or recipient c, b, intended for containing the small quantity of liquid which passes over during the process; and, 3d, of a set of bottles, with two mouths, L, L, L, L, half filled with water, intended for absorbing the gas disengaged by the distillation. This apparatus will be more amply described in the latter part of this work.

Although we have not yet been able, either to compose or to decompound this acid of sea-salt, we cannot have the smallest doubt that it, like all other acids, is composed by the union of oxygen with an acidifiable base. We have therefore called this unknown substance the muriatic base, or muriatic radical, deriving this name, after the example of Mr Bergman and Mr de Morveau, from the Latin word muria, which was anciently used to signify sea-salt. Thus, without being able exactly to determine the component parts of muriatic acid, we design, by that term, a volatile acid, which retains the form of gas in the common temperature and pressure of our atmosphere, which combines with great facility, and in great quantity, with water, and whose acidifiable base adheres so very intimately with oxygen, that no method has hitherto been devised for separating them. If ever this acidifiable base of the muriatic acid is discovered to be a known substance, though now unknown in that capacity, it will be requisite to change its present denomination for one analogous with that of its base.

In common with sulphuric acid, and several other acids, the muriatic is capable of different degrees of oxygenation; but the excess of oxygen produces quite contrary effects upon it from what the same circumstance produces upon the acid of sulphur. The lower degree of oxygenation converts sulphur into a volatile gasseous acid, which only mixes in small proportions with water, whilst a higher oxygenation forms an acid possessing much stronger acid properties, which is very fixed and cannot remain in the state of gas but in a very high temperature, which has no smell, and which mixes in large proportion with water. With muriatic acid, the direct reverse takes place; an additional saturation with oxygen renders it more volatile, of a more penetrating odour, less miscible with water, and diminishes its acid properties. We were at first inclined to have denominated these two degrees of saturation in the same manner as we had done with the acid of sulphur, calling the less oxygenated muriatous acid, and that which is more saturated with oxygen muriatic acid: But, as this latter gives very particular results in its combinations, and as nothing analogous to it is yet known in chemistry, we have left the name of muriatic acid to the less saturated, and give the latter the more compounded appellation of oxygenated muriatic acid.

Although the base or radical of the acid which is extracted from nitre or saltpetre be better known, we have judged proper only to modify its name in the same manner with that of the muriatic acid. It is drawn from nitre, by the intervention of sulphuric acid, by a process similar to that described for extracting the muriatic acid, and by means of the same apparatus (Pl. IV. Fig. 1.). In proportion as the acid passes over, it is in part condensed in the baloon or recipient, and the rest is absorbed by the water contained in the bottles L,L,L,L; the water becomes first green, then blue, and at last yellow, in proportion to the concentration of the acid. During this operation, a large quantity of oxygen gas, mixed with a small proportion of azotic gas, is disengaged.

This acid, like all others, is composed of oxygen, united to an acidifiable base, and is even the first acid in which the existence of oxygen was well ascertained. Its two constituent elements are but weakly united, and are easily separated, by presenting any substance with which oxygen has a stronger affinity than with the acidifiable base peculiar to this acid. By some experiments of this kind, it was first discovered that azote, or the base of mephitis or azotic gas, constituted its acidifiable base or radical; and consequently that the acid of nitre was really an azotic acid, having azote for its base, combined with oxygen. For these reasons, that we might be consistent with our principles, it appeared necessary, either to call the acid by the name of azotic, or to name the base nitric radical; but from either of these we were dissuaded, by the following considerations. In the first place, it seemed difficult to change the name of nitre or saltpetre, which has been universally adopted in society, in manufactures, and in chemistry; and, on the other hand, azote having been discovered by Mr Berthollet to be the base of volatile alkali, or ammoniac, as well as of this acid, we thought it improper to call it nitric radical. We have therefore continued the term of azote to the base of that part of atmospheric air which is likewise the nitric and ammoniacal radical; and we have named the acid of nitre, in its lower and higher degrees of oxygenation, nitrous acid in the former, and nitric acid in the latter state; thus preserving its former appellation properly modified.

Several very respectable chemists have disapproved of this deference for the old terms, and wished us to have persevered in perfecting a new chemical language, without paying any respect for ancient usage; so that, by thus steering a kind of middle course, we have exposed ourselves to the censures of one sect of chemists, and to the expostulations of the opposite party.

The acid of nitre is susceptible of assuming a great number of separate states, depending upon its degree of oxygenation, or upon the proportions in which azote and oxygen enter into its composition. By a first or lowest degree of oxygenation, it forms a particular species of gas, which we shall continue to name nitrous gas; this is composed nearly of two parts, by weight, of oxygen combined with one part of azote; and in this state it is not miscible with water. In this gas, the azote is by no means saturated with oxygen, but, on the contrary, has still a very great affinity for that element, and even attracts it from atmospheric air, immediately upon getting into contact with it. This combination of nitrous gas with atmospheric air has even become one of the methods for determining the quantity of oxygen contained in air, and consequently for ascertaining its degree of salubrity.

This addition of oxygen converts the nitrous gas into a powerful acid, which has a strong affinity with water, and which is itself susceptible of various additional degrees of oxygenation. When the proportions of oxygen and azote is below three parts, by weight, of the former, to one of the latter, the acid is red coloured, and emits copious fumes. In this state, by the application of a gentle heat, it gives out nitrous gas; and we term it, in this degree of oxygenation, nitrous acid. When four parts, by weight, of oxygen, are combined with one part of azote, the acid is clear and colourless, more fixed in the fire than the nitrous acid, has less odour, and its constituent elements are more firmly united. This species of acid, in conformity with our principles of nomenclature, is called nitric acid.

Thus, nitric acid is the acid of nitre, surcharged with oxygen; nitrous acid is the acid of nitre surcharged with azote; or, what is the same thing, with nitrous gas; and this latter is azote not sufficiently saturated with oxygen to possess the properties of an acid. To this degree of oxygenation, we have afterwards, in the course of this work, given the generical name of oxyd14.

12 The term formerly used by the English chemists for this acid was written sulphureous; but we have thought proper to spell it as above, that it may better conform with the similar terminations of nitrous, carbonous, &c. to be used hereafter. In general, we have used the English terminations ic and ous to translate the terms of the Author which end with ique and cux, with hardly any other alterations. — E.

13 For this purpose, the operation called decrepitation is used, which consists in subjecting it to nearly a red heat, in a proper vessel, so as to evaporate all its water of crystallization. — E.

14 In strict conformity with the principles of the new nomenclature, but which the Author has given his reasons for deviating from in this instance, the following ought to have been the terms for azote, in its several degrees of oxygenation: Azote, azotic gas, (azote combined with caloric), azotic oxyd gas, nitrous acid, and nitric acid. — E.


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