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Arabian alchemist, German iatro-chemist, and all subsequent chemists looked upon water as a type of an indivisible substance, which could not be decomposed into anything simpler. Microscopic monocellular organisms of the plant and animal world, daily splitting up water into its component gases for their daily needs, knew better, but they could not write textbooks. The Honorable Henry Cavendish, who resided on the corner of Montague-place and Gower-street, near the British Museum, was the first human being to know that water is a compound, capable of being built up from its elements. It was a synthesis that advanced the science of chemistry. Did the eyes of this strange man glisten with a little joy?
Yet his views on the nature of water were not as certain as the modern conception. He was prevented from seeing too clearly by the bandage of phlogiston.
On certain occasions, while detonating common air with hydrogen, Cavendish obtained not only water, but traces of nitric acid. At that period there was not a chemist in Europe who could have explained the occurrence, but Cavendish with his intellectual bull-dog tenacity, attacked and stuck to the problem till he discovered that its production was due to the nitrogen of the atmosphere which had combined with the oxygen and hydrogen.
Joseph Black, founder of the chemistry of the gases, considered this discovery 'as one of the most important in the whole science of chemistry.' The veteran was so enthusiastic because of the light which it threw on the theory of his beloved science.
It explained, for instance, the production of nitrates in the soil. Long before a speck of protoplasm thought of becoming a man, the lightning flashed and converted a portion of the atmosphere into nitric acid, and the rains washed the aqua fortis to the earth, but it was reserved for Henry Cavendish to supply the key for this closed door.
Certainly, an imperfect life; a life that too forcibly recalls Browning's complaint:
Each life's unfulfilled you see,
They have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Hands that never helped a friend, and never fought for the world's prizes; lips that never trembled with rage, and never knew the kiss of love; a heart that never sank in sorrow, and never rose in ecstasy. Passions, none; emotions, absent; fellowship, blank; but he weighed the earth, he experimented with fire, he analyzed the air, he discovered the composition of Earth, Fire, Air and Water- the original elements of Empedocles: let us honor the brain that enlarged the boundaries of knowledge.