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Revolution Or Foundation?

Lavoisier's revolution did not condemn the old notion of elements common to all substances, although he destroyed three of the traditional four elements, fire, air, and water. The demonstration that water was not an element but a compound of two gases was made in a solemn experiment of analysis and synthesis of water set up in February 1785. It required heavy and expensive equipment designed with the help of a military engineer and with the support of an academic Commission of Study for the Improvement of Balloons. With this spectacular experiment Lavoisier won his first allies. Together they were able to take advantage of the opportunity to reform the chemical language as outlined by Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau (1737–1816) and build up a new "Method of Chymical Nomenclature" that reflected Lavoisier's theory and eliminated phlogiston. The new system, published in 1777, was seen as a coup d'état and sparkled a fierce controversy. The anti-phlogisticians mobilized all resources, including the creation of a new journal, Annales de chimie, in order to convince European chemists. Moreover, to defeat the last and attractive British version of phlogiston as inflammable air (hydrogen), which was articulated by Richard Kirwan (1732–1812), Madame Lavoisier translated into French his Essai sur le phlogistique (1788; Essay on phlogiston), while the anti-phlogisticians criticized the author's view in footnotes. Beyond the issue of phlogiston, numerous objections to the new language were raised by contemporary chemists concerning the choice of terms, such as "oxygen" (an acid generator according to Lavoisier's theory of acids) and "azote" (improper for animal life and a property of many other gases). Although the French "nomenclators" did not change any term, their system was finally adopted throughout Europe by 1800. But this victory did not always mean conversion to all facets of Lavoisier's chemistry. The reform of language fulfilled a long-felt need among the chemical community and it came at the right moment: textbooks were needed to train pharmacists as well as chemists for burgeoning industries. The new systematic language and Lavoisier's Elements of Chemistry (1789) facilitated the teaching of chemistry.

In the context of the French Revolution, which resulted in Lavoisier's death on the guillotine and the creation of a new educational system, Lavoisier's revolution has been perceived as the destruction of premodern chemistry and the foundation of modern chemistry on a tabula rasa. However, the celebration of the founding hero overemphasizes the impact of his contribution to chemistry. Lavoisier did not overthrow the whole of chemistry. The tradition of salt and affinity chemistry remained untouched. Rather, the latter was revised and integrated in a grandiose "Newtonian dream" by Claude-Louis Berthollet (1748–1822) in his Essai de statique chimique (1803). Lavoisier invented neither the "law of conservation of matter"—a kind of axiomatic principle tacitly assumed by all natural scientists long before him—nor the laws of chemical proportions that inspired the chemical atomism developed by the next generation of chemists.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to ChimaeraChemistry - Alchemy In The Scientific Revolution, Eighteenth-century Cultures Of Chemistry, From Phlogiston To Oxygen