Cavendish, Henry

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Cavendish, Henry (1731-1810): British Scientist.

Cavendish’s central interest was the study of attracting and repelling forces of particles. He came from high aristocratic lineage, and family wealth insured that he never had to prepare for a profession. Cavendish studied at Cambridge, but left without a degree in 1753. After Cambridge he settled in London where he lived with his father, a distinguished experimentalist and member of the Royal Society. Cavendish held no teaching position, but participated in the organized scientific and cultural life in London.

His initial researches concerned dynamics, especially the theory of heat. In his first published paper he discussed factitious airs, airs contained in bodies but capable of being freed, and conjectured that the inflammable air of metals is pure phlogiston. Cavendish later extended this study to a theory of electricity arguing that the electric fluid contained in a body resembles an air compressed in a container. Cavendish’s most important contribution to physics was his determination of the weight of the earth in 1798. By weighing the earth, Cavendish completed the law of gravity by transforming it from a mere proportional statement into a quantitatively exact statement.

During the 1780's, science took a direction that was antithetical to Cavendish’s thought. The ethereal explanation for the communication of force replaced Cavendish’s particle based explanation, and in chemistry, the views of Antoine Lavoiser were gaining ground. Cavendish wrote no books and published less than twenty articles. He left behind, however, numerous unpublished documents that were gradually brought into print during the nineteenth century. The most significant of these publications is James Clerk Maxwell’s 1879 edition of Cavendish’s electrical researches.

Further Reading:

Jungnickel, Christa, and Russell McCormmach, Cavendish: the experimental life, 1999.

Cornelis de Waal

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

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