Childhood & Early Life
Henry Cavendish was born, to parents of Norman origin, Lady Anne Grey and Lord Charles Cavendish, on 10 October 1731 in the city of Nice, France.
After Lady Anne’s demise in 1733, Henry and his younger brother Frederick were raised by their father.
Young Henry enrolled at the ‘Hackney Academy’ in London from where he completed his schooling. He then attended the ‘St Peter’s College’ affiliated to the ‘University of Cambridge’ in 1749. But he soon abandoned his education to pursue research work in the laboratory he set up in London.
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Henry’s association with the ‘Royal Society of London’ first began in the year 1760 when he was nominated a member of the ‘Royal Society’ as well as the ‘Royal Society Club’. An introvert by nature, he steered clear of any political agenda but partook a special interest in servitude to the scientific community.
In 1765, he was appointed to the ‘Council of the Royal Society of London’, in which capacity he put to use his scientific expertise and served on numerous committees including the ‘Royal Greenwich Observatory’. The following year his scientific publication titled ‘Factitious Airs’ was released.
From 1769-1773, Henry was involved with various scientific committees of the Royal Society, such as the committee which spearheaded the publication of scientific journal ‘Philosophical Transactions’, the astronomical committee which studied the transit of Venus, the committee studying gravitational attraction of mountains and the committee which marshalled the exploration of North Pole.
Henry was appointed manager of the newly founded ‘Royal Institution of Great Britain’ in 1800. Here the exceptionally talented chemist assisted the Cornish inventor, Humphry Davy, in his research.
Henry like many of his contemporaries observed the formation of a gas when a metal reacts with an acid. He named the resulting gas “inflammable air” (now known as hydrogen) and did pioneering work in establishing its nature and properties. His detailed findings were published in a paper in 1766.
Henry next embarked on the study of chemical reactions between alkalis and acids. He observed that similar to reaction between metal and acid, a gas is evolved when alkalis and acids combine.
He studied the chemical properties such as combustibility and physical properties such as solubility and specific gravity of the resulting gas, which he dubbed as “fixed air” (now known as carbon dioxide).
In 1783, he studied eudiometry and devised a new eudiometer, which provided near exact results. The same year he stated in a paper his findings regarding the chemical composition of water.
In 1785, he began his investigation on the chemical composition of atmospheric air and concluded that common air was comprised of 4 parts nitrogen and 1 part of oxygen. In this process he stumbled upon the inert gases, a concept explained later noted physicists William Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh.
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In his earlier studies Cavendish had explained heat to be a resultant of moving matter and in 1783 his paper which dealt with freezing point of mercury he dabbled with the concept of latent heat.
In the late 1780s he published his detailed findings on heat and his research implied the concept of conservation of heat. He even pioneered the idea that heat and work are interchangeable and explained the mechanical equivalent of heat.
He continued the work of British geologist John Mitchell after the latter’s demise. John who was working on calculating earth’s density before his demise had devised an apparatus for the purpose. Henry improvised the apparatus and eliminated any possible source of arising due to temperature differences or air currents.
He then calculated the average density of earth to be 5.48 times greater than density of air, a calculation that only differs by 10% to modern day calculations made using sophisticated instruments. The experiment performed in 1798 was named as the ‘Cavendish Experiment’.Though most of his studies on electricity were not published long after his death this great scientist also made significant to the field. He studied electrical conductivity of electrolytes and even established a relation between current and electric potential. He also deduced the mathematical proof for attraction between opposite charges and did research on the properties of dielectrics.
Personal Life & Legacy
Henry was an introvert and was extremely shy of female companions; he devoted his entire life to scientific development.
On 24 February 1810, this eminent scientist breathed his last in his London home and was interred at the Derby Cathedral of England.
The street which housed his residence in Derby was named after this revered scientific mind.