Welcome back, vacuists! That’s someone that believes in the existence of a vacuum between molecules and atoms. Get ready for a gripping history lesson because today we’re taking a trip back in time to visit the thoughts and experiments of some of sciences most highly regarded inventors and philosophers.
“Horror Vacui” Nature Abhors a Vacuum
Before the start of the 16th century, it was widely believed in the scientific community that it was impossible for a vacuum to exist in nature. This theory was proposed by Greek philosopher Aristotle between 384 – 282 BC, who believed the universe consisted of countless individual particles and that all of nature was made up of the four basic elements; earth, water, air, and fire. “Vacuum” comes from the latin word “vacuus” meaning empty; Aristotle’s theory claimed that where there was nothing, space could not be defined. In other words, if a vacuum began to develop, nature would instantly fill it. What made this belief even more dominant was the backing of the Catholic Church, so there were few who would dispute it; any that did risked execution or punishment for their beliefs, like many even before that time period.
Around the same time, between 460 – 375 BC, a Greek philosopher named Democritus and his teacher Leucippus proposed the idea that the world was made up of small particles that they called atoms, meaning indivisible in Greek. Their belief was that there was empty space between the particles that allowed them to move around. They concluded that this space was the reason for the diversity and variety of objects in the world because it allowed atoms to freely move around and arrange themselves in various positions and shapes. Their theory of this empty space credits them with the invention of the concept of a vacuum. Unfortunately their theory wouldn’t be supported until hundreds of years later.
As the 16th century came around, the existence of a vacuum became a highly disputed topic between philosophers and scientists across Italy, France, and Germany. It wasn’t until 1613 that experiments lead by Italian philosopher and mathematician Galileo Galilei determined that air had a density, thus proving that it could be looked at as a substance with weight for the first time. In 1644, influenced directly from Galileo’s work, Evangelista Torricelli conducted his own experiment to produce a vacuum. Torricelli took a glass tube filled with mercury and sealed the open end with his fingertip. He then flipped the tube upside down and submerged it in a small reservoir of mercury and removed his finger to enable contact between both volumes of mercury. As the mercury in the tube sank it created a volume of space above it in the tube that was independent of the mercury itself. This developed space in the tube was infact the first successful attempt to produce a vacuum and Torricelli had just created the first mercury barometer, or Torricellian tube, used to measure air pressure.
Otto von Guericke, Founding Father of Vacuum Physics
Otto von Guericke was a German politician, inventor, and scientist. Guericke was amongst many scientists that shared in the belief that a vacuum was possible. In 1650 after years of research, testing, and modifications, Guericke invented a device designed to pull air out of any vessel that it was attached to. This was the very first vacuum pump that operated with a piston and an air-gun cylinder with one-way flap valves and joints that were kept airtight submerged in water. With his pump Guericke was able to show the strength of displaced air with his Magdeburg hemispheres made of copper. In 1657 he conducted his experiment in front of an audience. Guericke used his vacuum pump to seal the two hemispheres together by creating a surrounding atmospheric pressure by pumping out the air between them. He then attached a team of 8 horses to each hemisphere and showed that they could not be separated. As extra force was applied the spheres were finally separated and accompanied by a sound of an explosion similar to that of a canon. Guericke went on to show this demonstration to others including Emperor Ferdinand III and Frederick William I, and used his pump to further study the effects of vacuums.
In years following Guericke’s experiments and inspired by his vacuum pump invention, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke designed an improved piston pump that they used to study vacuums and the properties of air. Boyle’s experiments lead to many discoveries in science including Boyle’s Law, the very first law of gases. He also proved that light and electrical forces could be transmitted through a vacuum but sound could not. Although there were many involved in the study and experiments of vacuum properties, it is Otto von Guericke’s work and discoveries that credit him with the founding of vacuum physics. There were many discoveries made in science following Guericke not only because of his work with vacuums but also static electricity. Two things that would eventually be combined during the Age of Enlightenment sparking a drive in the research and advancement of electricity. It wasn’t until 1850 when advanced vacuum technology took off again to cater to scientific research, and was closely followed by the invention of the light bulb. I’ll let our readers decide themselves who deserves the credit for that one.
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