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The Chemical History of a Candle

Michael Faraday

Book Overview: 

The Chemical History of a Candle is a series of 6 lectures on chemistry. Taught by Michael Faraday - a chemist and physist, and regarded as the best experimentalist in the history of science - it is probably the most famous of the Christmas Lectures of the Royal Society. Taking the everyday burning of a candle as a starting point, Faraday spans the arc from combustion and its products, via the components of water and air (oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon), back to the type of combustion that happens in the human body when we breathe. The final lecture "On Platinum" describes a then new method to produce large quantities of Platinum.

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Book Excerpt: 
. . .but we see what happens to a candle when it is burnt in a pure and proper state of air. At the time when I shewed you this charring by the ring of flame on the one side of the paper, I might have also shewn you, by turning to the other side, that the burning of a candle produces the same kind of soot—charcoal or carbon.

But, before I shew that, let me explain to you—as it is quite necessary for our purpose—that, though I take a candle and give you, as the general result, its combustion in the form of a flame, we must see whether combustion is always in this condition, or whether there are other conditions of flame; and we shall soon discover that there are, and that they are most important to us. I think, perhaps, the best illustration of such a point to us, as juveniles, is to shew the result of strong contrast. Here is a little gunpowder. You know that gunpowder burns with flame—we may fairly call it flame. It contains carbo. . . Read More

Community Reviews

A series of six lectures given by the natural philosopher Michael Faraday, in which he describes what happens when a candle is lit. Written in 19th-century English, it is not a clear or precise as science books written today, but I really enjoyed it because it was lovely to take something so smal...more

I wish I could rate this book higher, but I can’t. Faraday is certifiably awesome, and it would definitely be worth a trip in a time machine to have seen his lectures. But, for me, reading them fell a little flat.

This was partially my fault, as I read a copy with no pictures, and this book would...more

I want someone to recreate these lectures; they were fun to read but my feeble mind needs visual upon which to latch. Bill Nye, are you reading this?

I had to read this book for a senior-level combustion class that I took some years ago. Through the simple example of a candle and using easy-to-follow arguments, Faraday is able to deduce the physics involved around the flame (the capillary action of the wick, the convection currents, the combus...more

This book was mentioned in Richard Feynman's The Meaning Of It All:

And then electricity, the forces of attraction, of plus and minus, are so strong that in any normal substance all the pluses and minuses are carefully balanced out, everything pulled together with everything else. For a long time...more

This book is 10x better as a video, as it is close to a transcript. Concepts are interesting, however the format of this book is not the best way to consume these insights.

Amazing that so much of the combustion processes known today were understood approaching now 300 years ago.

Some of the language is scientifically out of date and a few experiments were a bit to follow in writing. So a reading of the lectures should be brisk, capturing the main points.

I wonder at the world, perhaps even too much, and so I never really understood my small or barely existent interest in Chemistry. Always enjoyed Physics, Biology and other Earth Sciences but Chemistry... Reading through Faraday's lectures and imagining them happening on the go, and seeing the ama...more

My New Year's non-resolution was to read the Harvard "Great Books". I picked this one up because it was the shortest. Mass communication has moved on from Dr Faraday and from the Great Books. Reading this was like reading a transcript of a youtube video. I'm sure it was fascinating to see his lec...more

This book is important as an artifact that illuminates (har har) the scientific mindset of the 1800s, an exciting time when learned people were articulating the processes that control the natural world. It's a series of lectures given to young people to demonstrate experimental techniques and fin...more

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