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Discovery of Oxygen, Part 2   By: (1742-1786)

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Published for THE ALEMBIC CLUB








The portions of Scheele's "Chemical Treatise on Air and Fire" here reproduced in English are intended to form a companion volume to No. 7 of the Club Reprints, which contains Priestley's account of his discovery of oxygen. Not only have the claims of Scheele to the independent discovery of this gas never been disputed, but the valuable volume of "Letters and Memoranda" of Scheele, edited by Nordenskjöld, which was published in 1892, places it beyond doubt that Scheele had obtained oxygen by more than one method at least as early as Priestley's first isolation of the gas, although his printed account of the discovery only appeared about two years after Priestley's. The evidence of this has been found in Scheele's laboratory notes, which are still preserved in the Royal Academy of Science in Stockholm.

In his "Chemical Treatise" Scheele endeavours, at considerable length, to prove by experiments his views as to the compound character of heat and of light. These portions of the work have been entirely omitted from what is reproduced here. All the places where omissions have been made are indicated.

Every care has been taken in the endeavour to make the translation a faithful reproduction of the meaning of the original, whilst literal accuracy has been aimed at rather than literary elegance.

L. D.


1. It is the object and chief business of chemistry to skilfully separate substances into their constituents, to discover their properties, and to compound them in different ways.

How difficult it is, however, to carry out such operations with the greatest accuracy, can only be unknown to one who either has never undertaken this occupation, or at least has not done so with sufficient attention.

2. Hitherto chemical investigators are not agreed as to how many elements or fundamental materials compose all substances. In fact this is one of the most difficult problems; some indeed hold that there remains no further hope of searching out the elements of substances. Poor comfort for those who feel their greatest pleasure in the investigation of natural things! Far is he mistaken, who endeavours to confine chemistry, this noble science, within such narrow bounds! Others believe that earth and phlogiston are the things from which all material nature has derived its origin. The majority seem completely attached to the peripatetic elements.

3. I must admit that I have bestowed no little trouble upon this matter in order to obtain a clear conception of it. One may reasonably be amazed at the numerous ideas and conjectures which authors have recorded on the subject, especially when they give a decision respecting the fiery phenomenon; and this very matter was of the greatest importance to me. I perceived the necessity of a knowledge of fire, because without this it is not possible to make any experiment; and without fire and heat it is not possible to make use of the action of any solvent. I began accordingly to put aside all explanations of fire; I undertook a multitude of experiments in order to fathom this beautiful phenomenon as fully as possible. I soon found, however, that one could not form any true judgment regarding the phenomena which fire presents, without a knowledge of the air. I saw, after carrying out a series of experiments, that air really enters into the mixture of fire, and with it forms a constituent of flame and of sparks. I learned accordingly that a treatise like this, on fire, could not be drawn up with proper completeness without taking the air also into consideration.

[Footnote A: Carl Wilhelm Scheele's Chemische Abhandlung von der Luft und dem Feuer. Upsala and Leipzig, 1777.]

4. Air is that fluid invisible substance which we continually breathe, which surrounds the whole surface of the earth, is very elastic, and possesses weight... Continue reading book >>

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