Elements of Chemistry, by Antoine Lavoisier

Chapter VII.

Of the Decomposition of Oxygen Gas by means of Metals, and the Formation of Metallic Oxyds.

Oxygen has a stronger affinity with metals heated to a certain degree than with caloric; in consequence of which, all metallic bodies, excepting gold, silver, and platina, have the property of decomposing oxygen gas, by attracting its base from the caloric with which it was combined. We have already shown in what manner this decomposition takes place, by means of mercury and iron; having observed, that, in the case of the first, it must be considered as a kind of gradual combustion, whilst, in the latter, the combustion is extremely rapid, and attended with a brilliant flame. The use of the heat employed in these operations is to separate the particles of the metal from each other, and to diminish their attraction of cohesion or aggregation, or, what is the same thing, their mutual attraction for each other.

The absolute weight of metallic substances is augmented in proportion to the quantity of oxygen they absorb; they, at the same time, lose their metallic splendour, and are reduced into an earthy pulverulent matter. In this state metals must not be considered as entirely saturated with oxygen, because their action upon this element is counterbalanced by the power of affinity between it and caloric. During the calcination of metals, the oxygen is therefore acted upon by two separate and opposite powers, that of its attraction for caloric, and that exerted by the metal, and only tends to unite with the latter in consequence of the excess of the latter over the former, which is, in general, very inconsiderable. Wherefore, when metallic substances are oxygenated in atmospheric air, or in oxygen gas, they are not converted into acids like sulphur, phosphorus, and charcoal, but are only changed into intermediate substances, which, though approaching to the nature of salts, have not acquired all the saline properties. The old chemists have affixed the name of calx not only to metals in this state, but to every body which has been long exposed to the action of fire without being melted. They have converted this word calx into a generical term, under which they confound calcareous earth, which, from a neutral salt, which it really was before calcination, has been changed by fire into an earthy alkali, by losing half of its weight, with metals which, by the same means, have joined themselves to a new substance, whose quantity often exceeds half their weight, and by which they have been changed almost into the nature of acids. This mode of classifying substances of so very opposite natures, under the same generic name, would have been quite contrary to our principles of nomenclature, especially as, by retaining the above term for this state of metallic substances, we must have conveyed very false ideas of its nature. We have, therefore, laid aside the expression metallic calx altogether, and have substituted in its place the term oxyd, from the Greek word οξυς.

By this may be seen, that the language we have adopted is both copious and expressive. The first or lowest degree of oxygenation in bodies, converts them into oxyds; a second degree of additional oxygenation constitutes the class of acids, of which the specific names, drawn from their particular bases, terminate in ous, as the nitrous and sulphurous acids; the third degree of oxygenation changes these into the species of acids distinguished by the termination in ic, as the nitric and sulphuric acids; and, lastly, we can express a fourth, or highest degree of oxygenation, by adding the word oxygenated to the name of the acid, as has been already done with the oxygenated muriatic acid.

We have not confined the term oxyd to expressing the combinations of metals with oxygen, but have extended it to signify that first degree of oxygenation in all bodies, which, without converting them into acids, causes them to approach to the nature of salts. Thus, we give the name of oxyd of sulphur to that soft substance into which sulphur is converted by incipient combustion; and we call the yellow matter left by phosphorus, after combustion, by the name of oxyd of phosphorus. In the same manner, nitrous gas, which is azote in its first degree of oxygenation, is the oxyd of azote. We have likewise oxyds in great numbers from the vegetable and animal kingdoms; and I shall show, in the sequel, that this new language throws great light upon all the operations of art and nature.

We have already observed, that almost all the metallic oxyds have peculiar and permanent colours. These vary not only in the different species of metals, but even according to the various degrees of oxygenation in the same metal. Hence we are under the necessity of adding two epithets to each oxyd, one of which indicates the metal oxydated15, while the other indicates the peculiar colour of the oxyd. Thus, we have the black oxyd of iron, the red oxyd of iron, and the yellow oxyd of iron; which expressions respectively answer to the old unmeaning terms of martial ethiops, colcothar, and rust of iron, or ochre. We have likewise the gray, yellow, and red oxyds of lead, which answer to the equally false or insignificant terms, ashes of lead, massicot, and minium.

These denominations sometimes become rather long, especially when we mean to indicate whether the metal has been oxydated in the air, by detonation with nitre, or by means of acids; but then they always convey just and accurate ideas of the corresponding object which we wish to express by their use. All this will be rendered perfectly clear and distinct by means of the tables which are added to this work.

15 Here we see the word oxyd converted into the verb to oxydate, oxydated, oxydating, after the same manner with the derivation of the verb to oxygenate, oxygenated, oxygenating, from the word oxygen. I am not clear of the absolute necessity of this second verb here first introduced, but think, in a work of this nature, that it is the duty of the translator to neglect every other consideration for the sake of strict fidelity to the ideas of his author. — E.


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