Talk to me!
The Chemical History of a Candle
Michael Faraday 1860
A series of six lectures for children at the Royal Institution, London: where an inscription above the entrance still records that Michael Faraday was himself originally inspired as a boy of fourteen by a lecture demonstration given there by Sir Humphry Davy. Michael Faraday founded the Christmas Lectures for children at the Royal Institution in 1826, a tradition which still continues.
Abridged by Ian Russell from several slightly different Internet sources, with added photographs and notes: Christmas 2004
(Ian Russell presented a 'Friday Evening Discourse' to members of the Royal Institution in November 2005, based on these lectures and standing exactly where Faraday stood.)
'There is no better, there is no more open door...'
I propose to bring before you, in the course of these lectures, the Chemical History of a Candle. There is no better, there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle. There is not a law under which any part of this universe is governed which does not come into play, and is not touched upon, in these phenomena. I trust, therefore, I shall not disappoint you in choosing this for my subject rather than any newer topic, which could not be better, were it even so good.
And, before proceeding, let me say this also: that, though our subject be so great, and our intention that of treating it honestly, seriously, and philosophically, yet I mean to pass away from all those who are seniors among us. I claim the privilege of speaking to juveniles as a juvenile myself. I have done so on former occasions, and, if you please, I shall do so again. And, though I stand here with the knowledge of having the words I utter given to the world, yet that shall not deter me from speaking in the same familiar way to those whom I esteem nearest to me on this occasion.
And now, my boys and girls
You have here a solid substance with no vessel to contain it; and how is it that this solid substance can get up to the place where the flame is? How is it that this solid gets there, it not being a fluid? or, when it is made a fluid, then how is it that it keeps together? This is a wonderful thing about a candle.
'A beautiful cup...'
You see, then, in the first instance, that a beautiful cup is formed. As the air comes to the candle, it moves upward by the force of the current which the heat of the candle produces, and it so cools all the sides of the wax, tallow, or fuel as to keep the edge much cooler than the part within; the part within melts by the flame that runs down the wick as far as it can go before it is extinguished, but the part on the outside does not melt. If I made a current in one direction, my cup would be lop-sided, and the fluid would consequently run over; for the same force of gravity which holds worlds together holds this fluid in a horizontal position, and if the cup be not horizontal, of course the fluid will run away in guttering. You see, therefore, that the cup is formed by this beautifully regular ascending current of air playing upon all sides, which keeps the exterior of the candle cool. No fuel would serve for a candle which has not the property of giving this cup, except such fuel as the Irish bogwood, where the material itself is like a sponge and holds its own fuel. You see now why you would have had such a bad result if you were to burn these beautiful candles that I have shown you, which are irregular, intermittent in their shape, and can not, therefore, have that nicely-formed edge to the cup which is the great beauty in a candle. I hope you will now see that the perfection of a process - that is, its utility - is the better point of beauty about it. It is not the best looking thing, but the best acting thing, which is the most advantageous to us. This good-looking candle is a bad-burning one. There will be a guttering round about it because of the irregularity of the stream of air and the badness of the cup which is formed thereby. You may see some pretty examples (and I trust you will notice these instances) of the action of the ascending current when you have a little gutter run down the side of a candle, making it thicker there than it is elsewhere. As the candle goes on burning, that keeps its place and forms a little pillar sticking up by the side, because, as it rises higher above the rest of the wax or fuel, the air gets better round it, and it is more cooled and better able to resist the action of the heat at a little distance. Now the greatest mistakes and faults with regard to candles, as in many other things, often bring with them instruction which we should not receive if they had not occurred. We come here to be philosophers, and I hope you will always remember that whenever a result happens, especially if it be new, you should say, "What is the cause? Why does it occur?" and you will, in the course of time, find out the reason.
'The centre of action...'
But how does the flame get hold of the fuel? There is a beautiful point about that - capillary attraction. "Capillary attraction!" you say - "the attraction of hairs." Well, never mind the name; it was given in old times, before we had a good understanding of what the real power was. It is by what is called capillary attraction that the fuel is conveyed to the part where combustion goes on, and is deposited there, not in a careless way, but very beautifully in the very midst of the centre of action, which takes place around it.
When you wash your hands, you take a towel to wipe off the water; and it is by that kind of wetting, or that kind of attraction which makes the towel become wet with water, that the wick is made wet with the tallow. I have known some careless boys and girls (indeed, I have known it happen to careful people as well) who, having washed their hands and wiped them with a towel, have thrown the towel over the side of the basin, and before long it has drawn all the water out of the basin and conveyed it to the floor, because it happened to be thrown over the side in such a way as to serve the purpose of a siphon.
'A train of fire...'
There is another condition which you must learn as regards the candle, without which you would not be able fully to understand the philosophy of it, and that is the vaporous condition of the fuel. In order that you may understand that, let me show you a very pretty but very commonplace experiment. If you blow a candle out cleverly, you will see the vapor rise from it. You have, I know, often smelt the vapor of a blown-out candle, and a very bad smell it is; but if you blow it out cleverly you will be able to see pretty well the vapor into which this solid matter is transformed. I will blow out one of these candles in such a way as not to disturb the air around it by the continuing action of my breath; and now, if I hold a lighted taper two or three inches from the wick, you will observe a train of fire going through the air till it reaches the candle. I am obliged to be quick and ready, because if I allow the vapor time to cool, it becomes condensed into a liquid or solid, or the stream of combustible matter gets disturbed.
'Something which is not part of the flame...'
There is a current formed, which draws the flame out; for the flame which you see is really drawn out by the current, and drawn upward to a great height, just as Hooker has here shown you by that prolongation of the current in the diagram. You may see this by taking a lighted candle, and putting it in the sun so as to get its shadow thrown on a piece of paper. How remarkable it is that that thing which is light enough to produce shadows of other objects can be made to throw its own shadow on a piece of white paper or card, so that you can actually see streaming round the flame something which is not part of the flame, but is ascending and drawing the flame upward. Now I am going to imitate the sunlight by applying the voltaic battery to the electric lamp. You now see our sun and its great luminosity; and by placing a candle between it and the screen, we get the shadow of the flame. You observe the shadow of the candle and of the wick; then there is a darkish part, as represented in the diagram, and then a part which is more distinct. Curiously enough, however, what we see in the shadow as the darkest part of the flame is, in reality, the brightest part; and here you see streaming upward the ascending current of hot air, as shown by Hooker, which draws out the flame, supplies it with air, and cools the sides of the cup of melted fuel.
'This dark part...'
Here is a candle; I am about to put the end of this glass tube into the middle of the flame - into that part which old Hooker has represented in the diagram as being rather dark, and which you can see at any time if you will look at a candle carefully, without blowing it about. We will examine this dark part first.
Now I take this bent glass tube, and introduce one end into that part of the flame, and you see at once that something is coming from the flame, out at the other end of the tube; and if I put a flask there, and leave it for a little while, you will see that something from the middle part of the flame is gradually drawn out, and goes through the tube, and into that flask, and there behaves very differently from what it does in the open air. It not only escapes from the end of the tube, but falls down to the bottom of the flask like a heavy substance, as indeed it is. We find that this is the wax of experiment, if there is not too much disturbance, there will always be a ring. This is a good experiment for you to make at home. Take a strip of paper, have the air in the room quiet, and put the piece of paper right across the middle of the flame - (I must not talk while I make the experiment) - and you will find that it is burnt in two places, and that it is not burnt, or very little so, in the middle; and when you have tried the experiment once or twice, so as to make it nicely, you will be very interested to see where the heat is, and to find that it is where the air and the fuel come together.
'The imperfectly burned part...'
Here is a larger wick (burning turpentine on a ball of cotton). All these things are the same as candles, after all. If we have larger wicks, we must have a larger supply of air, or we shall have less perfect combustion. Look, now, at this black substance going up into the atmosphere; there is a regular stream of it. I have provided means to carry off the imperfectly burned part, lest it should annoy you. Look at the soots that fly off from the flame; see what an imperfect combustion it is, because it can not get enough air. What, then, is happening? Why, certain things which are necessary to the combustion of a candle are absent, and very bad results are accordingly produced; but we see what happens to a candle when it is burnt in a pure and proper state of air. At the time when I showed you this charring by the ring of flame on the one side of the paper, I might have also shown you, by turning to the other side, that the burning of a candle produces the same kind of soot - charcoal, or carbon.
I think, perhaps, the best illustration of such a point to us, as juveniles, is to show the result of strong contrast. Here is a little gunpowder. You know that gunpowder burns with flame; we may fairly call it flame. It contains carbon and other materials, which altogether cause it to burn with a flame. And here is some pulverized iron, or iron filings. Now I purpose burning these two things together. I have a little mortar in which I will mix them. (Before I go into these experiments, let me hope that none of you, by trying to repeat them for fun's sake, will do any harm. These things may all be very properly used if you take care, but without that much mischief will be done.)
'A powder which is very combustible...'
There are such curious conditions of flame that it requires some cleverness and nicety of discrimination to distinguish the kinds of combustion one from another. For instance, here is a powder which is very combustible, consisting, as you see, of separate little particles. It is called lycopodium, and each of these particles can produce a vapor, and produce its own flame; but, to see them burning, you would imagine it was all one flame. I will now set fire to a quantity, and you will see the effect. We saw a cloud of flame, apparently in one body; but that rushing noise [referring to the sound produced by the burning] was a proof that the combustion was not a continuous or regular one.
Suppose I take a candle and examine that part of it which appears brightest to our eyes. Why, there I get these black particles, which already you have seen many times evolved from the flame, and which I am now about to evolve in a different way. I will take this candle and clear away the gutterage, which occurs by reason of the currents of air, and if I now arrange the glass tube so as just to dip into this luminous part, as in our first experiment, only higher, you see the result. In place of having the same white vapor that you had before, you will now have a black vapor. There is goes, as black as ink. It is certainly very different from the white vapor; and when we put a light to it we shall find that it does not burn, but that it puts the light out. Well, these particles, as I said before, are just the smoke of the candle; and this brings to mind that old employment which Dean Swift recommended to servants for their amusement, namely writing on the ceiling of a room with a candle. But what is that black substance? Why, it is the same carbon which exists in the candle. How comes it out of the candle? It evidently existed in the candle, or else we should not have had it here. And now I want you to follow me in this explanation. You would hardly think that all those substances which fly about London, in the form of soots and blacks, are the very beauty and life of the flame, and which are burned in it as those iron filings were burned here. Here is a piece of wire gauze, which will not let the flame go through it; and I think you will see, almost immediately, that when I bring it low enough to touch that part of the flame which is otherwise so bright, it quells and quinches it at once, and allows a volume of smoke to rise up.
'It is to this presence of solid particles ... that it owes its brilliancy'
I want you now to follow me in this point - that whenever a substance burns, as the iron filings burnt in the flame of gunpowder, without assuming the vaporous state (whether it becomes liquid or remains solid), it becomes exceedingly luminous. I have here taken three or four examples apart from the candle on purpose to illustrate this point to you, because what I have to say is applicable to all substances, whether they burn or whether they do not burn - that they are exceedingly bright if they retain their solid state, and that it is to this presence of solid particles in the candle flame that it owes its brilliancy.
The heat that is in the flame of a candle decomposes the vapor of the wax, and sets free the carbon particles; they rise up heated and glowing as this now glows, and then enter into the air. But the particles, when burnt, never pass off from a candle in the form of carbon. They go off into the air as a perfectly invisible substance, about which we shall know hereafter.
Is it not beautiful to think that such a process is going on, and that such a dirty things as charcoal can become so incandescent? You see it comes to this - that all bright flames contain these solid particles; all things that burn and produce solid particles all these things give us this glorious and beautiful light.
You observe that there are certain products as the result of the combustion of a candle, and that of these products one portion may be considered as charcoal, or soot; that charcoal, when afterward burnt, produces some other product; and it concerns us very much now to ascertain what that other product is.
If you go home, and take a spoon that has been in the cold air, and hold it over a candle - not so as to soot it - you will find that it becomes dim just as that jar is dim. If you can get a silver dish, or something of that kind, you will make the experiment still better; and now, just to carry your thoughts forward to the time we shall next meet, let me tell you that it is water which causes the dimness, and when we next meet I will show that we can make it, without difficulty, assume the form of a liquid.
Here again [holding another bottle] is some water produced by the combustion of an oil lamp. A pint of oil, when burnt fairly and properly, produces rather more than a pint of water. Here, again, is some water, produced by a rather long experiment, from a wax candle. And so we can go on with almost all combustible substances, and find that if they burn with a flame, as a candle, they produce water. You may make these experiments yourselves: the head of a poker is a very good thing to try with, and if it remains cold long enough over the candle, you may get water condensed in drops on it; or a spoon, or ladle, or any thing else may be used, provided it be clean, and can carry off the heat, and so condense the water.
This is hydrogen - a body classed among those things which in chemistry we call elements, because we can get nothing else out of them. A candle is not an elementary body, because we can get carbon out of it; we can get this hydrogen out of it, or at least out of the water which it supplies. And this gas has been so named hydrogen, because it is that element which, in association with another generates water.
Hydrogen gives rise to no substance that can become solid, either during combustion or afterward as a product of its combustion; but when it burns it produces water only; and if we take a cold glass and put it over the flame, it becomes damp, and you have water produced immediately in appreciable quantity; and nothing is produced by its combustion but the same water which you have seen the flame of the candle produce. It is important to remember that this hydrogen is the only thing in nature which furnishes water as the sole product of combustion.
I see you are not tired of the candle yet, or I am sure you would not be interested in the subject in the way you are. When our candle was burning we found it produced water exactly like the water we have around us; and by farther examination of this water we found in it that curious body, hydrogen that light substance of which there is some in this jar. We afterward saw the burning powers of that hydrogen, and that it produced water.
But what can this be which we find as the other constituent in water, and which must therefore be that substance which made the hydrogen burn? Let us call it O - call it "Oxygen"; it is a very good, distinct - sounding name. This, then, is the oxygen which was present in the water, forming so large a part of it.
Oxygen, as you will immediately imagine, exists in the atmosphere; for how should the candle burn to produce water without it? Such a thing would be absolutely impossible, and chemically impossible, without oxygen.
'This gas which ... we call carbonic acid...'
We will now turn to another very important part of our subject, remembering that we have examined the candle in its burning, and have found that it gives rise to various products. We have the products, you know, of soot, of water, and of something else, which you have not yet examined. We have collected the water, but have allowed the other things to go into the air. Let us now examine some of these other products.
Here is an experiment which I think will help you in part in this way. We will put our candle there, and place over it a chimney, thus. I think my candle will go on burning, because the air passage is open at the bottom and the top. In the first place, you see the moisture appearing - that you know about. It is water produced from the candle by the action of the air upon its hydrogen. But, besides that, something is going out at the top: it is not moisture - it is not water - it is not condensible; and yet, after all, it has very singular properties. You will find that the air coming out of the top of our chimney is nearly sufficient to blow the light out I am holding to it; and if I put the light fairly opposed to the current, it will blow it quite out. You will say, that is as it should be, and I am supposing that you think it ought to do so, because the nitrogen does not support combustion, and ought to put the candle out, since the candle will not burn in nitrogen. But is there nothing else there than nitrogen? I must now anticipate - that is to say, I must use my own knowledge to supply you with the means that we adopt for the purpose of ascertaining these things, and examining such gases as these. I will take an empty bottle - here is one - and if I hold it over this chimney, I shall get the combustion of the candle below sending its results into the bottle above; and we shall soon find that this bottle contains, not merely an air that is bad as regards the combustion of a taper put into it, but having other properties.
But we have a better means of getting this substance, and in greater
quantity, so as to ascertain what its general characters are. We find
this substance in very great abundance in a multitude of cases where you
would least expect it. All limestones contain a great deal of this gas
which issues from the candle, and which we call carbonic acid. All chalks,
all shells, all corals, contain a great quantity of this curious air.
'The elements ... supplied by the candle...'
We have traced the water to its elements, and now we have to see where are the elements of the carbonic acid supplied by the candle. A few experiments will show this. You remember that when a candle burns badly it produces smoke; but if it is burning well there is no smoke. And you know that the brightness of the candle is due to this smoke, which becomes ignited. Here is an experiment to prove this: so long as the smoke remains in the flame of the candle and becomes ignited, it gives a beautiful light, and never appears to us in the form of black particles. I will light some fuel which is extravagant in its burning. This will serve our purpose - a little turpentine on a sponge. You see the smoke rising from it, and floating into the air in large quantities; and remember now, the carbonic acid that we have from the candle is from such smoke as that. To make that evident to you, I will introduce this turpentine burning on the sponge into a flask where I have plenty of oxygen, the rich part of the atmosphere, and you now see that the smoke is all consumed. This is the first part of our experiment; and now, what follows? The carbon which you saw flying off from the turpentine flame in the air is now entirely burned in this oxygen, and we shall find that it will, by this rough and temporary experiment, give us exactly the same conclusion and result as we had from the combustion of the candle. The reason why I make the experiment in this manner is solely that I may cause the steps of our demonstration to be so simple that you can never for a moment lose the train of reasoning, if you only pay attention. All the carbon which is burned in oxygen, or air, comes out as carbonic acid, while those particles which are not so burned show you the second substance in the carbonic acid, - namely, the carbon - that body which made the flame so bright while there was plenty of air, but which was thrown off in excess when there was not oxygen enough to burn it.
Before we leave the subject of carbon, let us make a few experiments and remarks upon its wonderful condition as respects ordinary combustion. I have shown you that the carbon, in burning burns only as a solid body, and yet you perceive that, after it is burned, it ceases to be a solid. There are very few fuels that act like this. It is, in fact, only that great source of fuel, the carbonaceous series, the coals, charcoals, and woods, that can do it. I do not know that there is any other elementary substance besides carbon that burns with these conditions; and if it had not been so, what would happen to us? Suppose all fuel had been like iron, which, when it burns, burns into a solid substance. We could not then have such a combustion as you have in this fireplace.
'A living process of combustion...'
Now I must take you to a very interesting part of our subject - to the relation between the combustion of a candle and that living kind of combustion which goes on within us. In every one of us there is a living process of combustion going on very similar to that of a candle, and I must try to make that plain to you.
What is all this process going on within us which we can not do without, either day or night, which is provided for by the Author of all things that He has arranged that it shall be independent of all will? If we restrain our respiration, as we can to a certain extent, we should destroy ourselves. When we are asleep the organs of respiration and the parts that are associated with them still go on with their action, so necessary is this process of respiration to us, this contact of the air with the lungs. I must tell you, in the briefest possible manner, what this process is. We consume food; the food goes through that strange set of vessels and organs within us, and is brought into various parts of the system, into the digestive parts especially; and alternately the portion which is so changed is carried through our lungs by one set of vessels, while the air that we inhale and exhale is drawn into and thrown out of the lungs by another set of vessels, so that the air and the food come close together, separated only by an exceedingly thin surface; the air can thus act upon the blood by this process, producing precisely the same results in kind as we have seen in the case of the candle. The candle combines with parts of the air, forming carbonic acid, and evolves heat; so in the lungs there is this curious, wonderful change taking place. The air entering, combines with the carbon (not carbon in a free state, but, as in this case, placed ready for action at the moment), and makes carbonic acid and is so thrown out into the atmosphere, and thus this singular result takes place; we may thus look upon the food as fuel.
'What a quantity of carbon must go from each of us...'
You will be astonished when I tell you what this curious play of carbon amounts to. A candle will burn some four, five, six, or seven hours. What, then, must be the daily amount of carbon going up into the air in the way of carbonic acid! What a quantity of carbon must go from each of us in respiration! What a wonderful change of carbon must take place under these circumstances of combustion or respiration! A man in twenty-four hours converts as much as seven ounces of carbon into carbonic acid; a milch cow will convert seventy ounces, and a horse seventy-nine ounces, solely by the act of respiration. That is, the horse in twenty-four hours burns seventy nine ounces of charcoal, or carbon, in his organs of respiration to supply his natural warmth in that time. All the warm-blooded animals get their warmth in this way, by the conversion of carbon, not in a free state, but in a state of combination. And what an extraordinary notion this gives us of the alterations going on in our atmosphere. As much as 5,000,000 pounds, or 548 tons, of carbonic acid is formed by respiration in London alone in twenty four hours.
And where does all this go? Up into the air. If the carbon had been like the lead which I showed you, or the iron which, in burning, produces a solid substance, what would happen? Combustion could not go on. As charcoal burns it becomes a vapor and passes off into the atmosphere, which is the great vehicle, the great carrier for conveying it away to other places. Then what becomes of it? Wonderful is it to find that the change produced by respiration, which seems so injurious to us (for we can not breathe air twice over), is the very life and support of plants and vegetables that grow upon the surface of the earth.
'... your duty to your fellow-men'
This piece of wood gets all its carbon, as the trees and plants get theirs, from the atmosphere, which, as we have seen, carries away what is bad for us and at the same time good for them - what is disease to the one being health to the other. So are we made dependent not merely upon our fellow-creatures, but upon our fellow-existers, all Nature being tied together by the laws that make one part conduce to the good of another.
Indeed, all I can say to you at the end of these lectures (for we must come to an end at one time or other) is to express a wish that you may, in your generation, be fit to compare to a candle; that you may, like it, shine as lights to those about you; that, in all your actions, you may justify the beauty of the taper by making your deeds honorable and effectual in the discharge of your duty to your fellow-men.