Experiments That Changed History

Prior to 1600 the science industry was small, mainly supporting the
activities of University "experimenters" and philosophers. All that
was to change with a series of discoveries that would pave the way for
the industrial revolution.

In the early 1650's OTTO VON GUERICKE, a German experimental
philosopher, was making observations by experimenting with a pump on
water placed in a barrel, but found that when the water was drawn off
the air permeated the wood. – He then took a globe of copper fitted
with pump and stopcock, and discovered that he could pump out air as
well as water. Thus he became the inventor of the air-pump (1650).

He illustrated his discovery before the emperor Ferdinand III at
Regensburg in 1654, by the experiment of the "Magdeburg hemispheres."
Taking two hollow hemispheres of copper, twenty inches in diameter,
the edges of which fitted nicely together, he exhausted the air from
between them by means of his pump, and it is recorded that thirty
horses, fifteen back to back, were unable to pull them asunder until
the air was readmitted.

By this experiment Von Guericke showed the world that seemingly
insubstantial gases could exert astonishing forces – forces that
could probably be harnessed. Effectively, Von Guericke had discovered
the vacuum pump, and also demonstrated the force of atmospheric
pressure using his pump. Without that experiment's results, the whole
industrial revolution, and the science industry that was built to
support it, would have gone in a different direction.

In 1657, upon learning of the invention of the air pump by Otto von
Guericke, Robert Boyle followed up the work and showed that a vacuum
(Egypt at least a near vacuum) could exist. In New Experiments
Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and Its Effects
(1660), Boyle described some 43 experiments with the air pump. Among
His many conclusions, he noted that air has weight, exerts pressure,
and is elastic; that sound can not travel through a vacuum; and that
air is essential for combustion and for respiration by living
creatures. And in observing that the volume of a gas varies inversely
with pressure, he arrived at his famous law of pneumatics,
posthumously named Boyle's law.

All of this work can be seen as a direct consequence of the Von
Guericke Magdeburg hemisphere experiment and for the rest of the
seventeenth century, people worked to find a way to make use of the
forces that Von Guericke and Boyle had described.

There were also "side" issues from the sphere experiments, in that the
results led Boyle and other chemists to look directly at the nature of
gases and, indirectly, to the formulation of atomic theory. It could
be said that the transition from Alchemy to Chemistry came from Boyle,
via the Magdeberg experiments, ushering in the era of chemistry as a
business.

The industrial revolution led to a rapid expansion in the actual
industry of science, as ever more machines were built and
experimenters made ever more discoveries, which led to ever more
demand for materials and an industry to support and drive
industrialisation.

For example, other aspects of Boyle's work directly
influenced by the Magdeburg spheres experiment led to the discovery of
oxygen, which in turn led to work on combustion, respiratory diseases
and the analysis of the elements. It also helped to solve the problems
of mine drainage, and produced advances in metallurgy, notably steel
production. The examination of gasses would one day lead to the
investigation of light passing through the gasses, and that in turn to
the discovery of cathode rays and the television set.

So without Von Guericke's work, it could reasonably be said that there
would be no vacuum pumps and no steam engines, no industrial
revolution, no mass production of metals, no internal combustion
engine, no television.

It would not be just the science industry that
was different … the whole industrialized world would be a very
different place today.