Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent

Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent
SUBJECT AREA: Chemical technology
b. 26 August 1743 Paris, France
d. 8 May 1794 Paris, France
French founder of the modern science of chemistry.
As well as receiving a formal education in law and literature, Lavoisier studied science under some of the leading figures of the day. This proved to be an ideal formation of the man in whom "man of science" and "public servant" were so intimately combined. His early work towards the first geological map of France and on the water supply of Paris helped to win him election to the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1768 at the youthful age of 25. In the same year he used some of his private income to buy a part-share in the "tax farm", a private company which leased from the Government the right to collect certain indirect taxes.
In 1772 Lavoisier began his researches into the related phenomena of combustion, respiration and the calcination or oxidation of metals. This culminated in the early 1780s in the overthrow of the prevailing theory, based on an imponderable combustion principle called "phlogiston", and the substitution of the modern explanation of these processes. At the same time, understanding of the nature of acids, bases and salts was placed on a sounder footing. More important, Lavoisier defined a chemical element in its modern sense and showed how it should be applied by drawing up the first modern list of the chemical elements. With the revolution in chemistry initiated by Lavoisier, chemists could begin to understand correctly the fundamental processes of their science. This understanding was the foundationo of the astonishing advance in scientific and industrial chemistry that has taken place since then. As an academician, Lavoisier was paid by the Government to carry out investigations into a wide variety of practical questions with a chemical bias, such as the manufacture of starch and the distillation of phosphorus. In 1775 Louis XVI ordered the setting up of the Gunpowder Commission to improve the supply and quality of gunpowder, deficiencies in which had hampered France's war efforts. Lavoisier was a member of the Commission and, as usual, took the leading part, drawing up its report and supervising its implementation. As a result, the industry became profitable, output increased so that France could even export powder, and the range of the powder increased by two-thirds. This was a material factor in France's war effort in the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
As if his chemical researches and official duties were not enough, Lavoisier began to apply his scientific principles to agriculture when he purchased an estate at Frechines, near Blois. After ten years' work on his experimental farm there, Lavoisier was able to describe his results in the memoir "Results of some agricultural experiments and reflections on their relation to political economy" (Paris, 1788), which holds historic importance in agriculture and economics. In spite of his services to the nation and to humanity, his association with the tax farm was to have tragic consequences: during the reign of terror in 1794 the Revolutionaries consigned to the guillotine all the tax farmers, including Lavoisier.
1862–93, Oeuvres de Lavoisier, Vols I–IV, ed. J.B.A.Dumas; Vols V–VI, ed. E.Grimaux, Paris (Lavoisier's collected works).
Further Reading
D.I.Duveen and H.S.Klickstein, 1954, A Bibliography of the Works of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier 1743–1794, London: William Dawson (contains valuable biographical material).
D.McKie, 1952, Antoine Lavoisier, Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer, London: Constable (the best modern, general biography).
H.Guerlac, 1975, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Chemist and Revolutionary, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons (a more recent work).

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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