March 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 12
pp. 52-53



DISCOVERING WATER: James Watt, Henry Cavendish, and the Nineteenth-Century "Water Controversy," by David Philip Miller, Ashgate Publishing, 2004, 316 pages, $109.95 (ISBN 0-7546-3177-X)



When I was asked to review a scholarly work on the "water controversy," I leapt to the conclusion that the subject was related to the water controversy that dominates the 21st century: the inexorable slow-motion train wreck of fixed freshwater supplies, growing water contamination, and a burgeoning human population. But instead, the "controversial" topic of "Discovering Water" by David Philip Miller is the question of who should be credited with the 18th-century discovery that water is not an element but a compound.

While the implications of the modern water controversy are more profound, Miller uses the discovery battle to illustrate the complicated and interesting issues surrounding the process of chemical discovery, research funding, and even science itself. The book is a multidimensional historical analysis of one of the lesser known processes of science--that is, the politics of priority or, more bluntly, who discovered what and when.

These political processes remain active today, and they are played out in the debate over "basic" versus "applied" or "academic" versus "industrial" research. The reasons for such debate have far more to do with who controls the power and funding of science than a mere difference in approach or recording of data. That these broader issues remain actively in play today validates the basic premise of approaching this otherwise mundane topic.

There are three main elements to Miller's book: the original water "discovery," an academic analysis of the historical evidence, and an analysis of how the motivations of the protagonists in the controversy influenced the claim to priority long after the discoverers were dead.

The first element is important to the history of chemistry, occurring just as chemistry was struggling to be accepted as a rigorous scientific discipline. The basic question was one of priority: Who first realized that water is not an element, as had been believed since ancient times, but a compound of hydrogen and oxygen?

Was it Antoine Lavoisier, the ambitious French chemist who lost his head in the French Revolution? Or was it Henry Cavendish, the British natural scientist and philosopher? Perhaps it was the Scottish engineer James Watt, famous for his contributions to the steam engine?Oddly, and somewhat frustratingly, the book purposely does not provide an in-depth recounting of the original research or place the work of these pioneers in a historical context. Instead, Miller refers to other historical accounts. So the reader is not exposed to the actual research methods, the purported point of discovery, or the original dissemination of the discovery. This is unfortunate, since all three of these pioneers made huge contributions to science in general and chemistry in particular.

Lavoisier (174394) was a product of radical France and won prizes in his youth for his innovations. He was a meticulous empiricist, which is important for the latter part of the story. His work included careful observations about natural phenomena, and his experiments were conducted to observe predicted and unpredicted outcomes. His techniques very much followed the scientific method as it is still practiced.

However, Lavoisier was not nearly as meticulous in crediting the work of others in some of his more important work. For example, he repeated the early experiments of Joseph Priestley in demonstrating that air is composed of two parts, but he tried to take credit for Priestley's work. He had similar overlaps in work with that of Cavendish. In the end, Lavoisier is thought of as the father of modern chemistry for his extensive contributions to the field, but he is not usually credited with the elemental discovery of water.

Most textbooks now generally credit the discovery to Cavendish (17311810), who perfected the techniques of taking gas samples above water. The English chemist was painfully shy, however, and wrote only 20 technical articles and no books. In fact, he was so shy that he communicated with his female servants only by note. His lack of academic correspondence may have contributed to the later priority debate.

While the preponderance of academic writings gives the nod to Cavendish, Miller points out that it is the academic community that writes the textbooks, and that Cavendish's rise was more of a cumulative process--one text referencing previous volumes--than one due to a preponderance of evidence. Indeed, Miller's bibliography shows that the credit to Cavendish grew over time.

The third contestant in the priority debate was Watt (17361819), the brilliant Scottish engineer credited with major improvements to the steam engine, though not its invention since steam engines were in widespread use before his birth. But it is from Watt's work that we derive units such as watt and horsepower. He successfully resolved early problems with the Newcomen steam engines, which lost nearly three-quarters of their steam in waste, by adding condensers. This was a concept he borrowed from the Scottish distillers--surely with extensive research! It was during his studies of the characteristics of steam that he is credited post hoc with the discovery of the compound nature of water.

Now to the crux of Miller's book. Lavoisier, Cavendish, and Watt themselves did not contend the controversy over the priority of discovery with great vigor. Indeed, the battle was not fought by the protagonists themselves in the 1780s, but rather it was fought after their deaths. The water controversy itself is probably just a footnote in chemical history. The author cites Robert K. Merton's 1973 book "The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations" to say that "although finding the water controversy important and revealing, [he] nevertheless described it as 'the most tedious and sectarian' on the calendar of eighteenth century disputes!"

The real priority battle was fought through the first half of the 1800s. While there was some nationalistic French support for the role of Lavoisier in the discovery, the main argument was between the supporters of Cavendish and Watt. On one side was the engineer's son, James Watt Jr., who held obvious filial loyalty to the reputation of his father. There was also a strong Scottish nationalist flavor to the claim for Watt. Watt Jr. was joined by then- pillars of the scientific community: Henry Brougham, Francis Jeffery, and David Brewster. While Miller suggests that much of the fervor for Watt was hype with little substantive evidence, the argument still illustrates the motives of the advocates.

The second layer of the book is probably even more tedious than the controversy itself--a detailed analysis of the mechanisms of priority and an evaluation of the literature surrounding the controversy. This is the veritable he said-she said syndrome, or, more accurately, he said-he said during this period. This is the fodder of science historians and sociologists and has its own language.

Miller devotes a significant portion of the book to the attributional models of scientific discovery and the sociology of scientific knowledge. This is Miller's field, and the fact that he took a year's sabbatical to focus on this subject illustrates the lingering difference between academic research and industrial application.

However, the real heart of this book is in the third layer. Miller focuses his analysis not just on the historical reporting of the issue but on the social, political, nationalistic, and even filial motivations that drove those who carried on the battle for priority for nearly a half-century after the initial discovery. In this analysis are threads that run through science to this day: academic versus industrial interests, pure versus applied chemistry.

The 19th-century protagonists of the controversy had their distinct reasons for advancing the priority of one candidate over another. For Frenchman François Arago, the context was the French Revolution and relating science to the people. In this sense, Watt's image as a humble engineer influencing an international economy was compelling. Watt also fit well with Brougham's focus on worker education, patent reform, and the application of knowledge.

For the supporters of Cavendish and Lavoisier, the issue focused on the use of the scientific method; that is, careful observational studies conducted for the sake of gaining knowledge. The real issue here was in determining the arbiters of what was "science." The question was one of hierarchy, of which comes first, the discovery or the application.

In his conclusion, Miller writes of these "gentlemen of science" as follows: "Their dominion in British science in the 1840s and 1850s depended upon a distancing of scientific discovery from industrial application, upon a link between the two that was mediated, or at least acknowledged to be so mediated, by themselves and not others."

The 19th-century argument persists. If we fund basic science, new applications will eventually flow, as opposed to the faction that advocates moving right to new applications and saving the money wasted on nondirected research. In this context, Miller's book is as relevant to today's science and chemistry as a congressional budget hearing.

Dennis L. Hjeresen is program manager for Pollution Prevention & Sustainability Programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory and current chair of the American Chemical Society's Division of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry. He is a former director of ACS's Green Chemistry Institute and continues as a member of its governing board.

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