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TO JOSEPH PRIESTLEY.*
Effect of Vegetation on Noxious Air.
That the vegetable creation should restore the air which is spoiled by the animal part of it, looks like a rational system, and seems to be of a piece with the rest. Thus fire purifies water all the world over. It purifies it by distillation, when it raises it in vapors, and lets it fall in rain; and farther still by filtration, when, keeping it fluid, it suffers that rain to percolate the earth. We knew before, that putrid animal substances were converted into sweet vegetables, when mixed with the earth, and applied as manure; and now it seems, that the same putrid substances, mixed with the air, have a similar effect. The strong thriving state of your mint, in putrid air, seems to show, that the air is mended by taking something from it, and not by adding to it. I hope this will give some check to the rage of destroying trees that grow near houses, which has accompanied our late improvements in gardening, from an opinion of their being unwholesome. I am certain, from long observation, that there is nothing unhealthy in the air of woods; for we Americans have everywhere our country habitations in the midst of woods, and no people on earth enjoy better health, or are more prolific.
* This extract is taken from Priestley's Experiments on Air, (Vol. I. p. 94,) 3d Edition. The author introduces it with the following remark. “Dr Franklin, who, as I have already observed, saw some of my plants in a very flourishing state, in noxious air, was pleased to express very great satisfaction with the result of the experiments. In answer to the letter in which I informed him of it, he says,” &c. — EDITOR.
On the Inflammability of the Surface of certain Rivers in America.
Craven Street, 10 April, 1774.
In compliance with your request, I have endeavoured to recollect the circumstances of the American experiments I formerly mentioned to you, of raising a flame on the surface of some waters there.
When I passed through New Jersey in 1764, I heard it several times mentioned, that, by applying a lighted candle near the surface of some of their rivers, a sudden flame would catch and spread on the water, continuing to burn for near half a minute. But the accounts I received were so imperfect, that I could form no guess at the cause of such an effect, and rather doubted the truth of it. I had no opportunity of seeing the experiment; but, calling to see a friend who happened to be just returning home from making it himself, I learned from him the manner of it; which was to choose a shallow place, where the bottom could be reached by a walking-stick, and was muddy; the mud was first to be stirred with the stick, and, when a number of small bubbles began to arise from it, the candle was applied. The flame was so sudden and so strong, that it catched his ruffle and spoiled it, as I saw. New Jersey having many pine-trees in many parts of it, I then imagined that something like a volatile oil of turpentine might be mixed with the waters from a pineswamp, but this supposition did not quite satisfy me.
See Priestley's Experiments on Air, (Vol. I. p. 321,) 3d Edition. EDITOR.
I mentioned the fact to some philosophical friends on my return to England, but it was not much attended I suppose I was thought a little too credulous. In 1765, the Reverend Dr. Chandler received a letter from Dr. Finley, President of the College in that province, relating the same experiment. It was read at the Royal Society, November 21st of that year, but not printed in the Transactions; perhaps because it was thought too strange to be true, and some ridicule might be apprehended, if any member should attempt to repeat it, in order to ascertain, or refute it. The following is a copy of that account.
"A worthy gentleman, who lives at a few miles distance, informed me, that in a certain small cove of a mill-pond, near his house, he was surprised to see the surface of the water blaze like inflamed spirits. I soon after went to the place, and made the experiment with the same success. The bottom of the creek was muddy, and when stirred up, so as to cause a considerable curl on the surface, and a lighted candle held within two or three inches of it, the whole surface was in a blaze, as instantly as the vapor of warm inflammable spirits, and continued, when strongly agitated, for the space of several seconds. It was at first imagined to be peculiar to that place; but upon trial it was soon found, that such a bottom in other places exhibited the same phenomenon. The discovery was accidentally made by one belonging to the mill."
I have tried the experiment twice here in England, but without success. The first was in a slow running water with a muddy bottom. The second in a stagnant water at the bottom of a deep ditch. Being some time employed in stirring this water, I ascribed an intermitting fever, which seized me a few days after, to my breathing too much of that foul air, which I stirred
up from the bottom, and which I could not avoid while I stooped, endeavouring to kindle it. The discoveries you have lately made, of the manner in which inflammable air is in some cases produced, may throw light on this experiment, and explain its succeeding in some cases, and not in others.
With the highest esteem and respect, I am, dear Sir, your most obedient humble servant, B. FRANKLIN.
Suppositions and Conjectures towards forming an Hypothesis for its Explanation.*
1. Air heated by any means becomes rarefied and specifically lighter than other air in the same situation not heated.
2. Air being thus made lighter rises, and the neighbouring cooler, heavier air takes its place.
3. If in the middle of a room you heat the air by a stove, or pot of burning coals near the floor, the heated air will rise to the ceiling, spread there over the cooler air till it comes to the cold walls; there being condensed and made heavier, it descends to supply the place of that cool air which had moved towards the stove or fire, in order to supply the place of the heated air which had ascended from the space around the stove or fire.
4. Thus there will be a continual circulation of air
First published in Mr. Vaughan's edition of the author's writings. Mr. Vaughan says, "If I mistake not, the paper was read at the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, at the meeting held immediately after Easter, 1779." — EDITOR.
in the room, which may be rendered visible by making a little smoke; for that smoke will rise and circulate with the air.
5. A similar operation is performed by nature on the air of the globe. Our atmosphere is of a certain height, perhaps at a medium miles. Above that height it is so rare as to be almost a vacuum. The air heated between the tropics is continually rising, and its place is supplied by northerly and southerly winds which come from those cool regions.
6. The light, heated air, floating above the cooler and denser, must spread northward and southward, and descend near the two poles, to supply the place of the cooler air which had moved towards the equator.
7. Thus a circulation of air is kept up in our atmosphere as in the room above mentioned.
8. That heavier and lighter air may move in currents of different and even opposite directions, appears sometimes by the clouds that happen to be in these currents, as plainly as by the smoke in the experiment above mentioned. Also in opening a door between two chambers, one of which has been warmed, by holding a candle near the top, near the bottom, and near the middle, you will find a strong current of warm air passing out of the warmed room above, and another of cool air entering it below, while in the middle there is little or no motion.
9. The great quantity of vapor rising between the tropics forms clouds, which contain much electricity.
Some of them fall in rain, before they come to the polar regions.
10. If the rain be received in an isolated vessel, the vessel will be electrified; for every drop brings down some electricity with it.
11. The same is done by snow and hail.