The Chemical History Of A Candle, Michael Faraday
The Chemical History Of A Candle
Michael Faraday
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The Chemical History of a Candle was the title of a series of six lectures on the chemistry and physics of flames given by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution in 1848, as part of the series of Christmas lectures for young people founded by Faraday in 1825 and still given there every year. The lectures described the different zones of combustion in the candle flame and the presence of carbon particles in the luminescent zone. Demonstrations included the production and examination of the properties of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide gases. An electrolysis cell is demonstrated, first in the electroplating of platinum conductors by dissolved copper, then the production of hydrogen and oxygen gases and their recombination to form water. The properties of water itself are studied, including its expansion while freezing (iron vessels are burst by this expansion), and the relative volume of steam produced when water is vaporized. Techniques for weighing gases on a balance are demonstrated. Atmospheric pressure is described and its effects demonstrated.

The ChemicalHistory of a Candle

Michael Faraday, D.C.L., F.R.S.


From the primitive pine-torch to the paraffin candle, how wide an interval! between them how vast a contrast! The means adopted by man to illuminate his home at night, stamp at once his position in the scale of civilisation. The fluid bitumen of the far East, blazing in rude vessels of baked earth; the Etruscan lamp, exquisite in form, yet ill adapted to its office; the whale, seal, or bear fat, filling the hut of the Esquimaux or Lap with odour rather than light; the huge wax candle on the glittering altar, the range of gas lamps in our streets, — all have their stories to tell. All, if they could speak (and, after their own manner, they can), might warm our hearts in telling, how they have ministered to man's comfort, love of home, toil, and devotion.

Surely, among the millions of fire-worshippers and fire-users who have passed away in earlier ages, some have pondered over the mystery of fire; perhaps some clear minds have guessed shrewdly near the truth. Think of the time man has lived in hopeless ignorance: think that only during a period which might be spanned by the life of one man, has the truth been known.

Atom by atom, link by link, has the reasoning chain been forged. Some links, too quickly and too slightly made, have given way, and been replaced by better work; but now the great phenomena are known — the outline is correctly and firmly drawn — cunning artists are filling in the rest, and the child who masters these Lectures knows more of fire than Aristotle did.

The candle itself is now made to light up the dark places of nature; the blowpipe and the prism are adding to our knowledge of the earth’s crust; but the torch must come first.

Among the readers of this book some few may devote themselves to increasing the stores of knowledge: the Lamp of Science must burn. “Alere flammam.”

W. Crookes.

Lecture I.
A Candle: The Flame — Its Sources — Structure — Mobility — Brightness

I purpose, in return for the honour you do us by coming to see what are our proceedings here, to bring before you, in the course of these lectures, the Chemical History of a Candle. I have taken this subject on a former occasion; and were it left to my own will, I should prefer to repeat it almost every year — so abundant is the interest that attaches itself to the subject, so wonderful are the varieties of outlet which it offers into the various departments of philosophy. There is not a law under which any part of this universe is governed which does not come into play, and is touched upon in these phenomena. There is no better, there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy, than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle. I trust, therefore, I shall not disappoint you in choosing this for my subject rather than any newer topic, which could not be better, were it even so good.

And before proceeding, let me say this also — that though our subject be so great, and our intention that of treating it honestly, seriously, and philosophically, yet I mean to pass away from all those who are seniors amongst us. I claim the privilege of speaking to juveniles as a juvenile myself. I have done so on former occasions — and, if you please, I shall do so again. And though I stand here with the knowledge of having the words I utter given to the world, yet that shall not deter me from speaking in the same familiar way to those whom I esteem nearest to me on this occasion.

And now, my boys and girls, I must first tell you of what candles are made. Some are great curiosities. I have here some bits of timber, branches of trees particularly famous for their burning. And here you see a piece of that very curious substance taken out of some of the bogs in Ireland, called candle-wood, — a hard, strong, excellent wood, evidently fitted for good work as a resister of force, and yet withal burning so well that where it is found they make splinters of it, and torches, since it burns like a candle, and gives a very good light indeed. And in this wood we have one of the most beautiful illustrations of the general nature of a candle that I can possibly give. The fuel provided, the means of bringing that fuel to the place of chemical action, the regular and gradual supply of air to that place of action — heat and light — all produced by a little piece of wood of this kind, forming, in fact, a natural candle.

But we must speak of candles as they are in commerce. Here are a couple of candles commonly called dips. They are made of lengths of cotton cut off, hung up by a loop, dipped into melted tallow, taken out again and cooled, then re-dipped until there is an accumulation of tallow round the cotton. In order that you may have an idea of the various characters of these candles, you see these which I hold in my hand — they are very small, and very curious. They are, or were, the candles used by the miners in coal mines. In olden times the miner had to find his own candles; and it was supposed that a small candle would not so soon set fire to the fire-damp in the coal mines as a large one; and for that reason, as well as for economy's sake, he had candles made of this sort — 20, 30, 40, or 60 to the pound. They have been replaced since then by the steel-mill, and then by the Davy-lamp, and other safety-lamps of various kinds. I have here a candle that was taken out of the Royal George, it is said, by Colonel Pasley. It has been sunk in the sea for many years, subject to the action of salt water. It shews you how well candles may be preserved; for though it is cracked about and broken a good deal, yet, when lighted, it goes on burning regularly, and the tallow resumes its natural condition as soon as it is fused.

Mr. Field, of Lambeth, has supplied me abundantly with beautiful illustrations of the candle and its materials. I shall therefore now refer to them. And, first, there is the suet — the fat of the ox — Russian tallow, I believe, employed in the manufacture of these dips, which Gay Lussac, or some one who entrusted him with his knowledge, converted into that beautiful substance, stearin, which you see lying beside it. A candle, you know, is not now a greasy thing like an ordinary tallow candle, but a clean thing, and you may almost scrape off and pulverise the drops which fall from it without soiling anything. This is the process he adopted: — The fat or tallow is first boiled with quick-lime, and made into a soap, and then the soap is decomposed by sulphuric acid, which takes away the lime, and leaves the fat re-arranged as stearic acid, whilst a quantity of glycerin is produced at the same time. Glycerin — absolutely a sugar, or a substance similar to sugar — comes out of the tallow in this chemical change. The oil is then pressed out of it; and you see here this series of pressed cakes, shewing how beautifully the impurities are carried out by the oily part as the pressure goes on increasing, and at last you have left that substance which is melted, and cast into candles as here represented. The candle I have in my hand is a stearin candle, made of stearin from tallow in the way I have told you. Then here is a sperm candle, which comes from the purified oil of the spermaceti whale. Here also are yellow bees-wax and refined bees-wax, from which candles are made. Here, too, is that curious substance called paraffin, and some paraffin candles made of paraffin obtained from the bogs of Ireland. I have here also a substance brought from Japan, since we have forced an entrance into that out-of-the-way place — a sort of wax which a kind friend has sent me, and which forms a new material for the manufacture of candles

And how are these candles made? I have told you about dips, and I will shew you how moulds are made. Let us imagine any of these candles to be made of materials which can be cast. “Cast!” you say. “Why, a candle is a thing that melts; and surely if you can melt it, you can cast it.” Not so. It is wonderful, in the progress of manufacture, and in the consideration of the means best fitted to produce the required result, how things turn up which one would not expect beforehand. Candles cannot always be cast. A wax candle can never be cast. It is made by a particular process, which I can illustrate in a minute or two: but I must not spend much time on it. Wax is a thing which, burning so well, and melting so easily in a candle, cannot be cast. However, let us take a material that can be cast. Here is a frame, with a number of moulds fastened in it. The first thing to be done is to put a wick through them. Here is one — a plaited wick, which does not require snuffing — supported by a little wire. It goes to the bottom, where it is pegged in — the little peg holding the cotton tight, and stopping the aperture, so that nothing fluid shall run out. At the upper part there is a little bar placed across, which stretches the cotton and holds it in the mould. The tallow is then melted, and the moulds are filled. After a certain time, when the moulds are cool, the excess of tallow is poured off at one corner, and then cleaned off altogether, and the ends of the wick cut away. The candles alone then remain in the mould, and you have only to upset them, as I am doing, when out they tumble, for the candles are made in the form of cones, being narrower at the top than at the bottom; so that what with their form and their own shrinking, they only need a little shaking, and out they fall. In the same way are made these candles of stearin and of paraffin. It is a curious thing to see how wax candles are made. A lot of cottons are hung upon frames, as you see here, and covered with metal tags at the ends to keep the wax from covering the cotton in those places. These are carried to a heater, where the wax is melted. As you see, the frames can turn round; and as they turn, a man takes a vessel of wax and pours it first down one, and then the next and the next, and so on. When he has gone once round, if it is sufficiently cool, he gives the first a second coat, and so on until they are all of the required thickness. When they have been thus clothed, or fed, or made up to that thickness, they are taken off, and placed elsewhere. I have here, by the kindness of Mr. Field, several specimens of these candles. Here is one only half-finished. They are then taken down, and well rolled upon a fine stone slab, and the conical top is moulded by properly shaped tubes, and the bottoms cut off and trimmed. This is done so beautifully that they can make candles in this way weighing exactly four, or six, to the pound, or any number they please

We must not, however, take up more time about the mere manufacture, but go a little further into the matter. I have not yet referred you to luxuries in candles (for there is such a thing as luxury in candles). See how beautifully these are coloured: you see here mauve, magenta, and all the chemical colours recently introduced, applied to candles. You observe, also, different forms employed. Here is a fluted pillar most beautifully shaped; and I have also here some candles sent me by Mr. Pearsall, which are ornamented with designs upon them, so that as they burn you have as it were a glowing sun above, and a bouquet of flowers beneath. All, however, that is fine and beautiful is not useful. These fluted candles, pretty as they are, are bad candles; they are bad because of their external shape. Nevertheless, I shew you these specimens sent to me from kind friends on all sides, that you may see what is done, and what may be done in this or that direction; although, as I have said, when we come to these refinements, we are obliged to sacrifice a little in utility.

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