The Chemical History of a Candle

Title page to the first edition eternal videos

A close-up image of a candle showing the wick and the various parts of the flame: How Michael Faraday (1791--- 1867) shed new light on electrochemistry, Profiles in Chemistry, Chemical Heritage Foundation

The Chemical History of a Candle was the title of a series of six lectures on the chemistry and physics of flames given by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution in 1848, as part of the series of Christmas lectures for young people founded by Faraday in 1825 and still given there every year.

The lectures described the different combustion zones in the candle flame and the presence of carbon particles in the luminescent zone. Demonstrations included producing and examining the properties of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide gases. An electrolysis cell is demonstrated, first in electroplating platinum conductors by dissolved copper, then the production of hydrogen and oxygen gases and their recombination to form water. The properties of water itself are studied, including its expansion while freezing (this expansion bursts iron vessels), and the relative volume of steam produced when water is vaporized. Techniques for weighing gases on a balance are demonstrated. Atmospheric pressure is described, and its effects are shown.

Faraday emphasizes that several of the demonstrations and experiments performed in the lectures may be performed by children \" at home\" and makes several comments regarding proper attention to safety.

The lectures were first printed as a book in 1861.

In 2016, Bill Hammack published a video series of lectures supplemented by commentary and a companion book. Faraday\'s ideas are still used as the basis for open teaching about energy in modern primary and secondary schools.

It is intended for young beginners, for whom it is well adapted, as an introduction to chemistry.

According to Frank Wilczek:

It is a beautiful laying-bare of surprising facts and intricate structures in a (superficially) familiar process — burning a candle. I think it exhibits a marvelously creative mind at work on its home ground, poking into details and following peculiarities to their root with carefully crafted experiments.

According to Bill Griffith, F.R.S.C., of Imperial College London:

Faraday uses the candle as a symbol to talk about the nature of combustion — how the oxygen from the air is needed, how water and CO2 are produced, and the hidden role of hydrogen. The text is lyrical and beautifully expressed, communicating his enthusiasm, authority, and excitement. There were many accompanying demonstrations, often involving explosions and bright lights. Endearingly, Faraday talks about himself and the audience as ’we philosophers’ and, on one occasion, as ’we juveniles’.


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