Henry Cavendish was a British theoretical and experimental scientist most famous for his discovery of hydrogen. He was born on 10 October 1731 in Nice, France and died as one of the wealthiest men in Britain in 1810.
Cavendish communicated with his female servants only via notes and added a staircase to the back of his house to avoid contact with his housekeeper.
Some believe he may have suffered from a form of autism, but just about everyone will admit that he was a scientific genius. He’s best remembered as the first person to recognise hydrogen gas as a distinct substance and to determine the composition of water.
In the 1700s, most people thought that water itself was an element, but Cavendish observed that hydrogen, which he called “inflammable aire” reacted with oxygen, known then by the name “dephlogisticated aire” to form water.
Cavendish didn’t quite understand what he had discovered, in part because he didn’t believe in chemical compounds (he explained his experiments with hydrogen in terms of a fire-like element called phlogiston).
“Young people must break machines to learn how to use them.”
– Henry Cavendish
Nevertheless, his experiments were groundbreaking. Like his work in determining the specific gravity – basically the comparative density of hydrogen and other gases with reference to common air – it’s especially impressive when you consider the crude instruments he was working with.
He went on not only to establish an accurate composition of the atmosphere but also discovered the density of the earth. But for all of his decades of experiments, Cavendish had only published about twenty papers.
“Nothing happens until something moves.”
– Albert Einstein
In the years after his death, researchers figured out that Cavendish had actually prediscovered Richter’s Law, Ohm’s Law, Coulomb’s Law and several others. If we had had to deal with them all, we would have had to call them Cavendish’s First Law, Cavendish’s Second Law, and so on.