Henry Cavendish

John Gehl sends this bio of the English physicist and chemist Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), whose notable scientific discoveries included the composition of air, the nature and properties of hydrogen, the specific heat of certain substances, the composition of water, and various properties of electricity.  Cavendish also measured the density and mass of the Earth by a method now known as the Cavendish experiment, and besides his work in pure science, he also carried out studies in meteorology and other applied sciences, including government-sponsored investigations to find ways to protect powder magazines from lightning strikes and to develop wear-resistant gold alloys for making coins. Driven mainly by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and not for public acclaim, Cavendish frequently neglected to publish the specifics of his research. That, however, did not prevent the scientific community from making him a fellow of the Royal Society in 1760, and in 1803 he was elected a foreign associate of the Institut de France 1803. Much of Cavendish's unpublished research became a treasure trove of valuable information for later scientists. For instance, both James Maxwell in his work on electricity and Antoine Lavoisier on gases owed much to the Cavendish unpublished notebooks. Despite his passionate commitment to science, Cavendish left his considerable inherited wealth to his relatives, and nothing to science. In 1871 the Cavendish family repaired this neglect by founding the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, which since has become the source of exceptional work in nuclear physics.

Cavendish descended from aristocratic families on both sides. He was born in Nice, France, where his mother had taken up residence to improve her health. After attending the Hackney seminary near London, Cavendish entered Cambridge University's Peterhouse College in 1849, leaving four years later without a degree, probably because he objected to the required declaration of adherence to the Church of England. After touring the Continent, he lived in London with his father until the latter's death in 1783. During this period he carried out all of his electrical, and most of his chemical, researches, starting as an assistant to his father, whose own experimental skill once drew praise from Benjamin Franklin. When Cavendish turned 40, he inherited the fortune that made him, in the words of a contemporary French scientist, "the richest of all learned men, and very likely also the most learned of all the rich."Despite his wealth Cavendish lived frugally, spending his money mostly to build an extensive library of scientific equipment and books. He was shy and slightly reclusive, confining his public appearances to meetings with his fellow scientists. He never married and was enough of a misogynist to require his female domestic help to keep out of his sight. He even communicated with his housekeeper in writing. Cavendish died in his 78th year and was buried in what is now Derby Cathedral, England. His most significant contributions were probably made in chemistry, where he showed that gases could be weighed, that air is a mixture and that water is a compound.

[See <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail//0195160045/newsscancom/ref=nosim> for Speculative Truth: Henry Cavendish, Natural Philosophy, and the Rise of Speculative Science"

Jim Tent writes: The biography of Henry Cavendish was admirable. I have only one admittedly niggling quarrel. The biography states that he was born in Nice, France in 1731. Until 1859 that city was Italian and was transferred to France by Count Camillo di Cavour at the request (demand) of Napoleon III of France as partial repayment for France's help in Cavour's unification scheme for Italy. For centuries the town was known as "Nizza" and its handsome public buildings were/are definitely in the Italian Reaissance style. An Italian native son of Nizza was none other than the revolutionary, Giuseppi Garibaldi, and he was so outraged at Cavour's backroom deal with Napoleon III that he returned from exile in Uruguay (where he had helped establish independence) to fight for Italian unification in a more democratic fashion. He helped the process mightily in Southern Italy, but he failed in his efforts to return the newly renamed "Nice" to Italian control. Nevertheless, Henry Cavendish was definitely born in Nizza, Italy in 1731.  RH: For Mussolini, Nizza and the area  ceded to France was terra irredenta. I believe the issue is now dead, but an Italy specialist may have more information.


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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: November 19, 2004