Powder Pioneer: Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier

Antoine Lavoisier was a reformed lawyer, whose curiosity made him, in some ways, the modern founder of the science of chemistry; and whose patriotism and scientific acumen led him to the leadership of King Louis’ XVI’s powder works in the very peak days of the Bourbon monarchy in France.

In other words, his timing could have been better.

The son of well-to-do, educated parents, he took the law degree as his father wished, but appointment to the privatized firm that collected Louis’s taxes gave him an income of his own and the freedom to pursue chemistry. He is revered today as one of the founding fathers of the science; his book, Traité élémentaire de chimie, was published in 1789 and was the first textbook of the science of chemistry — arguably the first textbook of science, period.

In 1775, the King appointed him as one of France’s Gunpowder Commissioners. Chem Heritage:

In 1775 Lavoisier was appointed a commissioner of the Royal Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration and took up residence in the Paris Arsenal. There he equipped a fine laboratory, which attracted young chemists from all over Europe to learn about the “Chemical Revolution” then in progress. He meanwhile succeeded in producing more and better gunpowder by increasing the supply and ensuring the purity of the constituents—saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal—as well as by improving the methods of granulating the powder.

Thus, chemistry was bound up with armaments even in its creation. As Michael Freemantle puts it in Gas, Gas, Quick, Boys!:

Gunpowder provides another example of the application of chemistry to warfare. The powder consists of a mixture of charcoal, the chemical element sulfur and one chemical compound – potassium nitrate. Its use in warfare dates back to the introduction of the gun as a weapon in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In fact, gunpowder chemistry also played a role in the birth of modern chemistry as we now know it.

His contributions to chemistry include such fundamentals as the naming of oxygen and hydrogen, and the understanding of how they could be combined to synthesize water, or water split to produce them. And someone had to be the first one to understand and report that the mass of reaction ingredients must equal the mass of reaction products — that someone was Lavoisier.

M Lavoisier and his wife, by French master Henry-Louis David. The scientific apparatus in the portrait is described here.

Putting a state arsenal on a scientific basis using these principles gave France a technological advantage in its longstanding conflicts with its neighbors, especially its cross-Channel nemesis. As mentioned above, improving the purity of the ingredients in the mixture, and adjusting the granulation of the powder, went a long way to improve the power, consistency, and reliability of gunpowder in the later 18th Century. This superior powder, made in the royal arsenals, using Lavoisier’s scientifically improved methods, was shipped in quantity from France to their allies in the endless wars with England, the American revolutionaries.

Unfortunately for Lavoisier, revolution didn’t stay on the far side of the Atlantic. Being in the good graces of the King had just hit its sell-by date, and hit it hard.

The American Chemical Society, as part of an in-depth exploration of the man and his impact, closed with this description of the end of Lavoisier:

Ironically, Lavoisier, the ardent and zealous chemical revolutionary, was caught in the web of intrigue of a political revolution. The TraitÉ was published in 1789, the same year as the storming of the Bastille. A year later, Lavoisier complained that “the state of public affairs in France…has temporarily retarded the progress of science and distracted scientists from the work that is most precious to them.”

Lavoisier, however, could not escape the wrath of Jean-Paul Marat, the adamant revolutionary who began publicly denouncing him in January 1791. During the Reign of Terror, arrest orders were issued for all of the Ferme Générale, including Lavoisier. On the morning of May 8, 1794, he was tried and convicted by the Revolutionary Tribunal as a principal in the “conspiracy against the people of France.” He was sent to the guillotine that afternoon. The next day, his friend, the French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, remarked that “it took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it.”

Lavoisier experimenting, draw by his wife (who drew herself into the pictue!)

His wife, who had been a key collaborator,  and many of his friends and fellow scientists would make it through the Terror; the unpleasant Marat, the Heydrich of his time, would not. But that’s another story!

12 thoughts on “Powder Pioneer: Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier

  1. ToastieTheCoastie

    Supposedly Cortes made his own gunpowder from volcanic soil when the supply ran out for his Conquistadors. Know anything about this?

    1. DSM

      Yeah, I’ve heard that story! He sent a party of men into a volcano to retrieve sulfur from the vents.

  2. Kirk

    Exploring the connection between Lavoisier and DuPont might be something to look at writing about. The US had little in the way of modern powder technology during the Revolution; during the French Revolution, DuPont fled to the US, and built up what became our powder/chemical industry.

    Early history of the powder industry here in the US is fascinating; lots of drama, lots of innovation. And, a lot of it traces back to Lavoisier, through DuPont.

    1. Badger

      Indeed, that would be a neat thing for some doctoral Borzoi to dive into since du Pont studied under Lavoisier, who really could be regarded as fathering the study of elemental chem. Isolating that it’s oxygen that’s the active element of the multi-elemental “air” that’s involved in combustion was a pretty big deal. He’s mentioned in the foundation chapter of a 1970 textbook I have – written pre-PC, after which anything really useful became “socially-evil” (like carbon). DuPont still periodically awards a Lavoisier Medal.

  3. Bert

    Cortez might well have extracted Sulfur from valcanic material, and charcoal us dead easy, anyplace with trees.

    Although Cortez had horses, dogs and a lot of spaniards making nitrogenous wastes, I do not think he would have been making nitrates from ingredients to hand any too quickly. Ripening a compost pile for nitrate extraction takes a bit long when the Aztecs are breathing down your neck- And the Atacama dessert source of Chile salt peter was a long ways South and unknown to Europeans at that time.

      1. John M.

        Even without native livestock building up manure piles, any outhouse’ll doo. Pardon the pun. :)

        -John M.

  4. Sommerbiwak

    The tax collection plan of the Bourbons to privatize this sovereign duty to private persons was one of the many reasons for the revolution. The tax collectors often collected much more than allowed and only passed on to the royal treasury what they had to. And often delivered less than they should, keeping more for their own purse. Not that Lavoisier practiced his tax collecting business this way, but many of his colleagues did. Normally nobody likes the tax collectors anywhere. In France they were hated with a passion for often good reason, which sadly made Lavoisier an easy target for the demagogues and the mob following them.

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