According to the phlogiston theory, propounded in the 17th century, every combustible substance consisted of a hypothetical principle of fire known as phlogiston, which was liberated through burning, and a residue. The word phlogiston was first used early in the 18th century by the German chemist Georg Ernst Stahl. Stahl declared that the rusting of iron was also a form of burning in which phlogiston was freed and the metal reduced to an ash or calx. The theory was superseded between 1770 and 1790 when the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier showed that burning and rusting both involved oxygen and concluded that both ash and rust were compounds of oxygen. Lavoisier's oxidization theory has been accepted by scientists from about 1800 to the present day.
The theory of phlogiston was predominantly German in origin, with much early work done in Mainz, though it was widely believed through much of the eighteenth century -- two of the most prominent followers of the theory, Johann Joachim Becher and Georg Ernst Stahl (who first used the name phlogiston in 1700), were Swedish. Phlogiston was not only widespread but deep-seated, and gave way to the atomic theory only slowly.
Phlogiston theorists identified three essences which comprise all matter: sulfur or terra pinguis, the essence of inflammability; mercury or terra mercurialis, the essence of fluidity; and salt or terra lapida, the essence of fixity and inertness. In this respect phlogiston theory is similar to the ancient alchemical notions of earth, air, fire, and water. The terra pinguis was renamed phlogiston. In this view, metals were made of a "calx" (or residue) combined with phlogiston, the fiery principle, which was liberated during combustion, leaving only the calx. Air, according to the theory, was merely the receptacle for phlogiston; all combustible or calcinable substances, in fact, were not elements but compounds containing phlogiston. Rusting iron, for instance, was believed to be losing its phlogiston and thereby returning to its elemental state.
Phlogiston theory was widely supported throughout the eighteenth century, although it came under increasing attack as empirical research pointed up its difficulties. When it was determined that some metals actually gained mass when burnt, partisans explained it by giving phlogiston a negative mass. Even Priestley believed in the theory until his death, convinced that his discovery of oxygen was "dephlogisticated air." It was up to Lavoisier to realize the significance of his discovery.
Lavoisier made a symbolic break with phlogiston theory by burning all textbooks that supported the theory, just as Paracelsus had destroyed his copies of the works of the medieval medical authorities. His theory of oxidation soon replaced phlogiston theory, and remains a part of modern chemistry.
Although he exaggerated its importance, Lavoisier was the first to understand the significance of Priestley's work on oxygen, and is considered by some to have discovered the element. He disproved phlogiston theory by demonstrating that oxygen is required for combustion, rusting, and respiration. He combined his chemical abilities with an interest in zoology to produce pioneering work on anatomy and physiology.
phlogiston theory , hypothesis regarding combustion. The theory, advanced by J. J. Becher late in the 17th cent. and extended and popularized by G. E. Stahl, postulates that in all flammable materials there is present phlogiston, a substance without color, odor, taste, or weight that is given off in burning. APhlogisticated@ substances are those that contain phlogiston and, on being burned, are Adephlogisticated.@ The ash of the
burned material is held to be the true material. The theory received strong...