Henry Cavendish

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Cavendish, Henry

Cavendish, Henry, 1731–1810, English physicist and chemist, b. Nice. He was the son of Lord Charles Cavendish and grandson of the 2d duke of Devonshire. He was a recluse, and most of his writings were published posthumously. His great contributions to science resulted from his many accurate experiments in various fields. His conclusions were remarkably original. His chief researches were on heat, in which he determined the specific heats for a number of substances (although these heat constants were not recognized or so called until later); on the composition of air; on the nature and properties of a gas that he isolated and described as “inflammable air” and that Lavoisier later named hydrogen; and on the composition of water, which he demonstrated to consist of oxygen and his “inflammable air.” In his Electrical Researches (1879) he anticipated some of the discoveries of Coulomb and Faraday. His experiments to determine the density of the earth led him to state it as 5.48 times that of water. His Scientific Papers were collected in two volumes (Electrical Researches and Chemical and Dynamical) in 1921.


See biography by A. J. Berry (1960); J. G. Crowther, Scientists of the Industrial Revolution (1963).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Cavendish, Henry


Born Oct. 10, 1731, in Nice; died Feb. 24, 1810, in London. English physicist and chemist. Member of the Royal Society of London (from 1760).

Cavendish graduated from Cambridge University in 1753. His main works were devoted to the chemistry of gases and various branches of experimental physics. He developed a method of collecting, purifying, and investigating gases, which he used in 1766 to obtain hydrogen and carbon dioxide in pure form and to determine their specific gravities and other properties. He determined the composition of air (1781) and established the chemical composition of water (1784) by burning hydrogen. Cavendish obtained nitrogen oxides using an electric spark and investigated their properties (1785). Most of his works on heat and electricity were only published many years after his death (works on electricity in 1879, a collection of works in 1921). Cavendish introduced the concept of electric potential, investigated the relationship between the capacity of an electric condenser and the medium, and studied the interaction of electric charges (anticipating Coulomb’s third law). He was the first to formulate the concept of specific heat. In 1798 he determined the average density of the earth using the method of torsional balance. Cavendish was extremely wealthy and worked in his own laboratory to the end of his life. The physics laboratory at Cambridge University, which was founded in 1871, was named in his honor.


The Scientific Papers, vols. 1–. Cambridge, 1921.


Wilson, G. The Life of Honourable Henry Cavendish.London, 1851.
Berry, A. J. Henry Cavendish: His Life and Scientific Work. London, 1960.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.