By Richard E. Noble
Antoine Laurent Lavoisier is known as the father of modern chemistry. He was born in France to a very well off family. He was provided with the best instructors as a child and loved learning. He absorbed mathematics, chemistry, astronomy and business. He received a medal from the King of France at just twenty three years of age. He had written a brilliant essay concerning the artificial lighting of the streets of Paris.
He was a rich kid, with not only a love for learning but for personal wealth as well. He married a girl named Marie Paulze in 1771. She was as wealthy as he; in both money and scientific curiosity. She became his lifelong mate and laboratory assistant.
Lavoisier had many scientific interests, but one that he found most concerning was the well established notion of “phlogiston”. A professor Georg Ernst Stahl (1660-1734) who had been inspired by his teacher Johann Becher (1635-1682), had “discovered” phlogiston.
Phlogiston was the supposed substance that was released from an object when it was set afire. It was a logical assumption and it was the basis of truth for nearly one hundred years. Lavoisier took the discovery of a man named Joseph Priestly (1733-1804), applied it to his inquiries on the nature of fire and came to a very strange conclusion. Fire was not the escaping of something (phlogiston) but the addition of something (Priestly’s Oxygen). He proved this by weighing things in his laboratory, before and after burning, for a period of over eleven years. All this weighing led Lavoisier to come to another conclusion that has since become a scientific principle. That principle, simply stated is that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Later on a similar conclusion was arrived at in relation to the phenomenon of energy by a man named Mayer. Albert Einstein then devised his famous theory, E = mc², and established a relationship between both matter and energy.
For Lavoisier, chemistry was his passion but success in business was his occupation. He invested in a “privatization” notion of his day. It was called the Ferme. It purchased in advance from the king, the right to collect taxes from the people. Needless to say, this organization was not loved and admired by the French people.
Lavoisier then got himself involved in another money making government monopoly, a Powder Works. The government, at Lavoisier’s suggestion, took over the manufacture of gun powder. Interestingly enough, Pierre DuPont, seeing the potential of such and occupation, got his son, Etuthere Irenee, a job as assistant at the Arsenal. This training lead the DuPonts to fame and fortune in America after they escaped the perils of the Guillotine in France.
Lavoisier, unlike the DuPonts, in 1794 on May 8, was lined up with other key executives of the Ferme to have his head chopped off. He was forth in line. His father-in-law was third. Lavoisier was a rich and wealthy nobleman. He had profited greatly from the much hated government. He was a key investor in the government’s hated privatization program of tax collecting. His discoveries in chemistry did not impress Mister Marat. The bodies of the Ferme executives were thrown into nameless graves in the cemetery d’Errancis. Lavoisier was dug up and given a more appropriate burial two years later when the government’s judgment against him was reversed.
“Better late than never”, does not seem to apply all that well in this situation.