The rise of physical chemistry in the 19th century has at its root two closely connected events which took place in the final year of the 18th century. In 1800, Alessandro Volta in Lombardy invented what we now call the Voltaic pile, which Messrs. Carlisle and Nicholson in England promptly employed to discover electrolysis.
Carlisle and Nicholson’s discovery that electricity can decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen caused as big a stir as any scientific discovery ever made. It demonstrated the existence of a relationship between electricity and the chemical elements, to which Michael Faraday would give quantitative expression in his two laws of electrolysis in 1834. Faraday also introduced the term ‘ion’, a little word for a big idea that Arrhenius, Ostwald and van ‘t Hoff would later use to create the foundations of modern physical chemistry in the 1880s.
About this post
The story of Carlisle and Nicholson’s discovery properly begins with a letter that Volta wrote on March 20th, 1800 to the President of the Royal Society in London, Sir Joseph Banks. The leaking of that letter (which contained confidential details of the construction of the Voltaic pile) to among others Anthony Carlisle, forms the narrative of my previous post “The curious case of Volta’s leaked letter”.
This post is concerned with the construction details themselves, which have their own story to tell, and the experimental activities of Messrs. Carlisle and Nicholson after they had seen the letter, which were reported in July 1800 by Nicholson in The Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry & the Arts – a publication that Nicholson himself owned.
The Voltaic pile
“The apparatus to which I allude, and which will no doubt astonish you, is only the assemblage of a number of good conductors of different kinds arranged in a certain manner.”
Alessandro Volta’s letter to Joseph Banks, introducing the Voltaic pile
Volta’s arrangement comprised a pair of different metals in contact (Z = Zinc, A = Silver), followed by a piece of cloth or other material soaked in a conducting liquid; this ‘module’ could be repeated an arbitrary number of times to build a pile in the manner illustrated below.
Volta believed the electrical current was excited by the mere contact of two different metals, and that the liquid-soaked material simply conducted the electricity from one metal pair to the next. This explains why Volta’s illustration shows the metals always in pairs – note the silver disc below the zinc at the bottom of the pile and a zinc disc above the silver at the top.
It was later shown that these terminal discs are unnecessary: the actual electromotive unit is zinc-electrolyte-silver. Volta’s arrangement can therefore be seen as a happy accident, in that his mistaken belief regarding the generation of electromotive force led him to the correct arrangement of repeated electrochemical cells, in which the terminal discs act merely as connectors for the external circuit wires.
Volta’s pile thus contained one less generating unit than he thought; it also caused the association of the two metals with the positive and negative poles of the battery to be reversed.
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Enter Mr. Carlisle
The president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, lived in a house at No.32 Soho Square. Here he entertained all the leading members of the scientific establishment, and it was here in April 1800 that he yielded to temptation and disclosed the contents of Signor Volta’s confidential letter to certain chosen acquaintances. Among them was another resident of Soho Square, the fashionable surgeon Anthony Carlisle, who had just moved in at No.12.
Volta’s announcement of his invention made an instant impression on Carlisle, who immediately arranged for his friend the chemist William Nicholson to look over the letter with him, after which Carlisle set about constructing the apparatus according to the instructions in Volta’s letter.
Nicholson records in his paper that by 30th April 1800, Carlisle had completed the construction of a pile “consisting of 17 half crowns, with a like number of pieces of zinc, and of pasteboard, soaked in salt water”. Using coinage for the silver discs was smart thinking by Carlisle – with a diameter of 1.3 inches (3.3 cm), the half crown was an ideal size for the purpose, and was made of solid silver.
From Nicholson’s account, it seems likely that Carlisle obtained a pound (approx. ½ kilo) of zinc from a metal dealer called John Tappenden who traded from premises just opposite the church of Saint Vedast Foster Lane, off Cheapside in the City of London. A pound of zinc was enough to make 20 discs of the diameter of a half crown.
Having constructed the pile exactly according to Volta’s illustration above, Carlisle and Nicholson were ready to begin their experiments. But before describing their work, it is pertinent to draw attention to the way in which they approached their program of research, which was quite unlike that of Volta.
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Differences in approach
Alessandro Volta’s letter to Joseph Banks, apart from briefly detailing the construction of the pile, comprises a lengthy account of electric shocks administered to various parts of the human anatomy and the nature of the resulting sensations.
Volta does first prove with a charging condenser that the pile generates electricity, but having ascertained this fact, he makes no further observations on the pile, other than asserting that the device has “an inexhaustible charge, a perpetual action” and later commenting: “This endless circulation of the electric fluid (this perpetual motion) may appear paradoxical and even inexplicable, but it is no less true and real;”
Volta appears not to have observed that the zinc discs quickly oxidise during operation; perhaps it was because he enclosed the pile in wax to prevent it from drying out. But nonetheless it seems strange that Volta did not discover during the course of his many experiments that the zinc discs do not have an unlimited lifetime.
William Nicholson also found it strange, commenting in his paper, “I cannot here look back without some surprise and observe that … the rapid oxidation of the zinc should constitute no part of his [Volta’s] numerous observations.”
Reading Volta’s communication to Banks, one is struck by the brevity of the text pertaining to his fabulous invention, and contrarily, the abundant descriptions of the shocks he administered with it. Volta is demonstrably more occupied with how humans experience the shocks that the pile delivers, than with the pile itself.
With Carlisle and Nicholson, the situation is very much the reverse. Having given themselves an obligatory shock with their newly-built machine, the attention immediately shifts to the pile itself. Their experiments and attendant reasoning show an approach that is more analytical in character.
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The path to discovery
On May 1st, 1800, Carlisle and Nicholson set up their pile – most likely in Carlisle’s house at 12 Soho Square – and began by forming a circuit with a wire and passing a current through it. To assist contact with the wire, a drop of river water was placed on the uppermost disc. As soon as this was done, Nicholson records
“Mr. Carlisle observed a disengagement of gas round the touching wire. This gas, though very minute in quantity, evidently seemed to me to have the smell afforded by hydrogen”
It is amazing that Nicholson was able to identify hydrogen from such a minute sample. But even more amazing was the thought that occurred to him next
“This [release of hydrogen gas], with some other facts, led me to propose to break the circuit by the substitution of a tube of water between two wires.”
Nicholson does not say what those other facts are, but he does record that on the first appearance of hydrogen gas, both he and Carlisle suspected that the gas stemmed from the decomposition of water by the electric current. Following that wonderfully intuitive piece of reasoning, Nicholson’s suggestion can be seen as a natural next step in their investigation.
On 2nd May, Carlisle and Nicholson began their experiment using brass wires in a tube filled with river water. A fine stream of bubbles, identifiable as hydrogen, immediately arose from the wire attached to the zinc disc, while the wire attached to the silver disc became tarnished and blackened by oxidation.
This was an unexpected result. Why was the oxygen, presumably formed at the same place as the hydrogen, not evolved at the same wire? Why and how does the oxygen apparently burrow through the water to the other wire where it produces oxidation of the metal? This finding, which according to Nicholson “seems to point at some general law of the agency of electricity in chemical operations” was to occupy physical chemists for the next 100 years…
Meanwhile, Carlisle and Nicholson responded to their new experimental finding with another wonderfully intuitive piece of reasoning. What would be the effect, they asked, of using electrodes made from a metal that resisted oxidation, such as platinum?
Immediately they set about finding the answer. With electrodes fashioned from platinum wire they observed a plentiful stream of bubbles from the wire attached to the zinc disc and a less plentiful stream from the wire attached to the silver disc. No tarnishing of the latter wire was seen. Nicholson wrote
“It was natural to conjecture, that the larger stream was hydrogen, and the smaller oxygen.”
The conjecture was correct. On a table top in Soho Square, Nicholson and Carlisle had successfully decomposed water into its constituent gases by the use of the Voltaic pile, and had thereby discovered electrolysis – a technique which was to prove of immeasurable importance to industry.
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Carlisle and Nicholson realised that the decomposition of water using platinum wires “offered a means of obtaining the gases separate from each other”. This not only provided a new way of producing these gases, but also opened up a new avenue of analysis. By measuring the relative volumes of hydrogen and oxygen evolved from the wires, they could compare their result with known data for water. [It should be noted that Carlisle and Nicholson did not have the benefit of Avogadro’s law, which was not formulated until 1811].
Carlisle and Nicholson subjected water to electrolysis for 13 hours, after which they determined the weight of water displaced by each gas in the respective tubes. The weights were in the proportion 142:72 in respect of hydrogen and oxygen; this is very close to the whole number ratio of 2:1 which was known to be the proportions in which these gases combine to produce water. Here then was quantitative evidence that the hydrogen and oxygen observed in Carlisle and Nicholson’s electrolytic cell originated from the decomposition of water.
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The experimental observations – explained
It was that drop of water placed on the uppermost disc to assist contact with the metal wire that opened the path to discovery. The fact that gas was formed “round the touching wire” indicates that the contact was intermittent: when the wire was in contact with the water drop but not the uppermost disc, a miniature electrolytic cell was formed and hydrogen gas was evolved.
Illustrating this graphically requires some qualifying explanation, since as already mentioned the terminal discs of the Voltaic pile assembled according to Volta’s instructions were unnecessary, and acted merely as conductors. Electrochemically, the uppermost disc of Carlisle and Nicholson’s Voltaic pile was a silver cathode, connected to the water drop via a zinc disc; the lowest disc in the pile was a zinc anode, which via an interposed silver disc was connected to the water drop via an unspecified metal wire. The electrochemical processes can be illustrated as follows
The drop of water shown in blue acted as an electrolytic cell supplied by a zinc anode (the uppermost disc) and an unspecified metal cathode (the wire). When current was passed through this cell at moments when the wire lost contact with the zinc disc, reduction of hydrogen ions produced bubbles of hydrogen at the cathode, i.e. around the wire, as Carlisle observed. At the anode, the oxygen formed would have immediately oxidised the zinc with no visible evolution of gas.
The hydrogen released at the silver discs in the Voltaic pile would not have been visible since it was evolved at the inner surface in contact with the moistened pasteboard.
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And so to the experimental set-up with which Carlisle and Nicholson successfully decomposed water into its constituent gases by the use of the Voltaic pile, and thereby discovered electrolysis. Electrochemically, the uppermost disc in the pile was a silver cathode, which via an interposed zinc disc was connected to the water in the tube via a platinum electrode; the lowest disc in the pile was a zinc anode, which via an interposed silver disc was connected to the water in the tube via a platinum electrode. The electrochemical processes can be illustrated as follows
The tube of water shown in blue acted as an electrolytic cell supplied by a platinum anode and cathode. When current was passed through this cell, reduction of hydrogen ions produced bubbles of hydrogen at the cathode, while the oxidation of water produced hydrogen ions and bubbles of oxygen at the anode.
As before, the hydrogen released at the silver discs in the Voltaic pile would not have been visible since it was evolved at the inner surface in contact with the moistened pasteboard.
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Mouse-over links to original papers mentioned in this post
Volta’s letter to Banks (begins on page 289)
Nicholson’s paper (begins on page 179)
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