Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Chemical History of a Candle

The Chemical History of a Candle, by Michael Faraday

First I have to tell you about my copy of this book.  It's a discard from one of the local elementary school libraries and it's pretty old.  I must have gotten it from my mom, and who knows where she picked it up.  When I started reading it, there was a slip of paper pasted inside the cover that says, "This book purchased under the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Science Pilot Project for 1962-63 school year."  How cool is that?  Sputnik gave me a book!


Michael Faraday, the great scientist, lived and worked at the Royal Institution for most of his adult life.  In 1825 he started an annual Christmas tradition of giving a series of lectures for children.  This tradition continues today and you can even watch them online nowThe Chemical History of a Candle was one such series, and was transcribed and printed in 1861.

It's a neat little book to read.  Faraday was clearly both enthusiastic about and very good at explaining scientific concepts to children.  Here he starts with a candle and explains fire and other sorts of combustion, shows how water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, talks about the composition and weight of air and other gases, shows vacuums, air pressure, and carbon dioxide, and does all sorts of neat little experiments that illustrate the principles.  He's having a lot of fun doing it too.

It's a good time for me to be reading this book, since we are studying chemistry this year and have done quite a few of the experiments he does.  It wasn't hard to understand the lectures at all--I mean, I should hope not since it's for children, but he is after all explaining everything in Victorian terms and the few diagrams in the book are not sufficient to illustrate the experiments, not by modern standards anyway.

My copy is elderly, but of course now it's very easy to download the lectures for free.  Try them out!

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