Henry Cavendish

No special reason for posting this.  Except that he deserves to be better known!


Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) was an English scientist who made pioneering investigations in chemistry and used a torsion balance experiment, devised by John Michell, to make the first accurate measurements of the mean density of the Earth and the strength of the gravitational constant.  He also carried out pioneering work on electricity, but much of his work was not published in his lifetime, and only became widely known when Cavendish’s papers were edited and published by James Clerk Maxwell in 1879.

     Cavendish could afford not to publish his results, because he did not have to make a living out of science.  Born on 10 October, 1731, at Nice, in France, Cavendish was the son of Lord Charles Cavendish, and grandson of the both 2nd Duke of Devonshire (on his father’s side) and the Duke of Kent (on his mother’s side).  His father, himself a Fellow of the Royal Society, was administrator of the British Museum.  Henry Cavendish studied at Cambridge University from 1749 to 1753, but left without taking a degree (not particularly unusual in those days), and studied in Paris for a year before settling in London.  He lived off his private fortune, and devoted his time to the study of science.  Apart from his scientific contacts, he was reclusive, and published little, although he used some of his money to found a library, open to the public, located well away from his home.  He was once described as “the richest of the learned, and the most learned of the rich.”

     Among his unpublished discoveries, Cavendish anticipated Ohm’s Law and much of the work of Michael Faraday and Charles Coulomb.  He also showed that gases could be weighed, and that air is a mixture of gases, not a pure substance.

     Cavendish died on 28 February 1810, and left more than a million pounds in his will.  The famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, named after Henry Cavendish, was founded in 1871 with funds provided by the 7th Duke of Devonshire, a relative of Cavendish and himself a talented mathematician.



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