An Excerpt from Hot Air

On the Production and Properties of Dephlogisticated Air (O2)

translated from the spanish by jason mccloskey



The gas (O2), that fetching air, was rocked
in cribs of tempered glass, concocted
in bottles, glossy red from top to bottom,
conceived on beds of incandescent gems
when bellows blew Sirocco’s scorching breath;
and after being happily conceived,
the powder (HgO) turned to drops of mercury (Hg).

Through crystal tubes you’re sure to see,
from time to time, the streaming beads
that sprout the zephyrs as they bounce
in bubbles that the water spouts.
This noble crew ascends through hoops
and topples obstacles en route
to fill the vessel. In their midst
the lovely Flora drifts
in wispy wraps of see-through mists.

Aurora’s fling with Mercury (HgO)
produced a child with no impurity,
an air (O2) immortal in nobility,
entirely phlogiston-free.
No artificial anything.
(According to the monk, the great Etruscan,
phlogiston’s naturally imbued combustion,
the principle responsible for taste,
for smell, for color and for flames.)

No air on Mt. Olympus
or on Parnassus could amount to this stuff.
No westward breeze in Eden
as delicate as this was ever breathed in.
When in the sky, it blends in nice and even;
on earth, it wipes out festering diseases.
The good & gentle influence it brings
makes creatures leap and songbirds sing.

Four times as good without contaminants
that common air can have in it.
The air increases gains in spades,
quadrupling calxes metals make.
Four times the length of burning light.
Four times a creature’s length of life.
If breathing this ambrosia were the rage,
we all would live four times the average age.

On one occasion, filled with awe,
and justified delight I saw
a spotless cylinder prepared
with flawless dephlogisticated air (O2).
A modern Trismegistus rigs a handle
out of a pin to hold a candle
and lights, and lowers it, till it’s submerged:
it looks more lit, more brilliant while it burns.

You know the sun? How when it’s hid
at times behind the fog, looks dim,
until it suddenly escapes the haze
and dazzles us with blinding rays?
Well that is how the candle started,
a scant penumbra, little more than darkness.
And yet the flame need only graze
the new air (O2) and it sparks a blaze
three times as great.

And while it’s bright like this
and if it is united with
inflammable air (H2), it detonates
with such a boom it’s deafening.
For proof that it’s salubrious, refer
to that same eudiometer
I wrote minutely on before:
the nitrous air (NO) absorbs
the dephlogisticated sort (O2)
almost completely.

Titillating bedroom scene: the conception of dephlogisticated air (O2)

Mercurius calcinatus per se (HgO) + hot embers stoked by bellows → O2

Zephyr (god of the westerlies) and Flora (goddess of flowers) skinny-dip in the lab equipment

“There are few subjects, perhaps none, that have occasioned more perplexity to chemists, than that of phlogiston, or, as it is sometimes called, the principle of inflammability. It was the great discovery of Stahl, that this principle, whatever it be, is transferable from one substance to another, how different soever in their other properties, such as sulfur, wood, and all the metals, and therefore is the same thing in them all.” –Joseph Priestley, Experiments and Observations Relating to Various Branches of Natural Philosophy, vol. 3, p. 1.

The great Etruscan: the Italian polymathic abbot Felice Fontana (1730-1805)

“I have gratified that curiosity, by breathing it, drawing it through a glass-siphon… I fancied that my breast felt peculiarly light and easy for some time afterwards. Who can tell but that, in time, this pure air may become a fashionable article in luxury. Hitherto only two mice and myself have had the privilege of breathing it.” –Joseph Priestley, Experiments & Observations on Different Kinds of Airs, vol. 2, p. 102

: powdery residue produced by roasting metals

The celebrated return of the three-times-great alchemist, Hermes Trismegistus, wowing crowds with hairpins and other discarded household odds and ends.

“The dipping of a candle into a jar filled with dephlogisticated air is alone a very beautiful  experiment. The strength and vivacity of the flame is striking, and the heat produced by the flame, in these circumstances is also remarkably great” –Joseph Priestley, Experiments & Observations on Different Kinds of Airs, vol. 2, p. 99

Astronomical simile:
Sun behind cloud : sun in clear sky :: candle burning in common air : candle burning in dephlogisticated air

Penumbra: aspiring shadow

“I easily conjectured, that inflammable air would explode with more violence and a louder report, by the help of dephlogisticated air; but the effect far exceeded my expectations, and it has never failed to surprise every person before whom I have made the experiment.” –Joseph Priestley, Experiments & Observations on Different Kinds of Airs, vol. 2, p. 98

Eudiometer: device for measuring healthiness of air


Translator's Note

Los aires fijos
(1780-1784) is an early modern poem that offers readers a peek into the archaic practices, theories, and nomenclature of eighteenth-century pneumatic chemistry. Before there was nitric oxide, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen, there was nitrous air, inflammable air, fixed air, and dephlogisticated air, all of which could be generated by pouring acids or focusing sunlight on certain kinds of chalky or metallic substances. The “airs” these solid materials released could be trapped in glass vessels turned upside-down in tubs of water called pneumatic troughs. From there, they could be submitted to examination with the help of mice, among other involuntary assistants.

The author of Los aires fijos was José de Viera y Clavijo (1731-1813), a mischievous, inquisitive priest born in the Canary Islands. He had several run-ins with the local Inquisition before moving to Madrid to work as a tutor for an aristocratic family. While visiting Paris with his patrons, he had the opportunity to take a course on pneumatic chemistry with the well-known scientist, Joseph-Aignan Sigaud de Lafond. When he returned from France to Madrid, he assembled a lab of his own, performed the first public experiments on gases in Spain and began drafting his poem. The final result was Los aires fijos, a six-canto epic published in three installments (1780, 1781, 1784) about pneumatic chemistry, photosynthesis (aka “vegetable airs”), and balloonomania (a delirium induced by buoyant gases). The text belongs to the Lucretian tradition of didactic poetry, an ideal form for Enlightenment thinkers eager to disseminate the latest scientific developments, such as Joseph Priestley’s (1733-1804) work in chemistry.

Priestley’s experiments with fixed air (CO2) led to his invention of a method for artificially carbonating water (the basis for the modern soft drink industry), but his most enduring work involves what he dubbed “dephlogisticated air” (O2). He generated the air by heating mercurius calcinatus per se, or mercuric oxide (HgO), with a large burning lens. The name he bestowed on it reflects the prevailing chemical theory of his time, which held that a substance called phlogiston made combustion possible. Priestley’s work on dephlogisticated air inspired further research by the French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, who later proposed a new theoretical system in which the same gas became known as oxygen. Thus began the so-called Chemical Revolution. The stanzas of this excerpt detail the properties of dephlogisticated air as revealed by Priestley’s experiments and reproduced by his successors, such as Sigaud de Lafond and his pupil, José de Viera y Clavijo.

I wanted to create a translation that was, like the original, amusing and somewhat informative. Using an informal, contemporary idiom was an important part of achieving this, but so was taking seriously the historical experiments, instruments and theories being described. (Yes, even the phlogiston.) Furthermore, I wanted to find a way to honor the formal poetics of the text without committing to the rigors of the original’s octava rima, so I exchanged the eight-line stanzas with their consonant rhymes for stanzas of varying lengths and assonant rhyme. This compromise mostly worked well, but one of the gases, aire inflamable (inflammable air), stubbornly resisted my imposition of an iambic meter. In trying to avoid using the anachronistic term “hydrogen” for inflammable air, I have sometimes translated it simply as “air” and let the parenthetical modern chemical symbol (H2) do the remaining semantic work. Elsewhere, as in this excerpt, I simply accept the term’s unfortunate rhythmic consequences, for the sake of historical precision.

The biggest challenge to translating this text was understanding what it was literally saying about the gases and the procedures and instruments used to manipulate them. It forced me to become conversant in the basics of the history of eighteenth-century chemistry, for which I relied on number of resources. Not least of these were the notes by Prof. José Cebrián in his modern Spanish edition of the text and Prof. Carmen Giunta’s online Glossary of Archaic Chemical Terms. Priestley’s own text, Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Airs (3 vols. 1774-1777) also came in handy.

At times, Priestley’s treatise on gases appears to be Viera y Clavijo’s primary source for his own poem. In the stanzas translated here, however, the Spanish author is basing his descriptions on his own experiments with his French teacher. Nevertheless, the parallels with Priestley’s text are clear, and these can be seen in the marginal notes I have inserted in the translation. Viera y Clavijo himself scattered comments on the sides of his poem that were meant to explicate or expand on references made in the body of the text. In this excerpt, for example, he glossed the allusion in stanza 53 to “el gran abate etrurio” (the great Etrurian abbot), clarifying that he was referring to “El señor abate Fontana” (the abbot Mr. Fontana). My marginal note reads “The great Etruscan, the Italian polymathic abbot Felice Fontana (1730-1805).” The other marginal notes in my translation are of my own creation. Some seek to reinforce descriptions with passages drawn from Priestley’s own writings. Others paraphrase or react to the text from a less-than-serious perspective that seeks to acknowledge the admittedly unusual content of a poem about obsolete chemistry.

Although I have used eighteenth-century nomenclature for gases, I do insert modern chemical symbols after them. Thomas Kuhn, the renowned historian of science, probably would have cringed at this implied equivalence (incommensurability!), but it aids comprehension of the text and contributes to its updating in the same way that using colloquial language does. Given my interventions, I call my translation Hot Air, instead of the more literal Fixed Airs. I think my version of the poem would have made Viera y Clavijo smile, and I hope it does the same for twenty-first century readers.

Jason McCloskey


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