The Chemical History of a Candle


By Saoirse Reynolds, Special Collections & Archives, JPII Library.

‘From the primitive pine-torch to the paraffin candle, how wide an interval! Between them how vast a contrast!’

The Chemical History of a Candle – by Michael Faraday (1791-1867).

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Michael Faraday 1791-1867

The book was edited by William Crookes (1832-1919) and published in London by Chatto and Windus, 1870. The lectures were first printed as a book in 1861 and it has numerous illustrations.

Ever wish you could receive a lecture from one of the great scientists? With this book you can!

This book is a series of six lectures on the chemistry and physics of flames which was given by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution in 1848. It was part of a series of Christmas lectures for young people which was founded by Faraday in 1825. These lectures are still given there every year and are televised. They were popular lectures and Faraday really enjoyed delivering them to the juvenile audience, passing on his enthusiasm for science to them and the public.

Front cover of book

Charles Dickens requested Faraday to write up his lectures and wrote to him in May 1850 saying “it has occurred to me that it would be extremely beneficial to a large class of public to have some account of your lectures you addressed… to children”. Faraday didn’t comply immediately but did eventually agree to have a stenographic record of his lectures undertaken.

The lectures were very entertaining and Faraday included serious chemical principles and used fascinating experiments to make them seem real. For example, copper chloride is used to colour a flame green, and a candle is relit from the vapour of an extinguished candle.

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Experiment with lime-water

Other demonstrations were used and included the production and examination of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The properties of water were also studied and the volume of steam produced when water is vaporised.
Many of the demonstrations could be tried out at home and Faraday comments on the proper attention to safety, with suitable adult supervision.
What drew me to this book was the idea of taking something as simple as a candle and breaking down what happens to it scientifically. It is an easily accessible and informative  book for a beginner and someone interested in the history of science. The book offers a fascinating insight into the mind of a great physicist of his time.

The Chemical History of a Candle, can be viewed in Special Collections & Archives,  John Paul II Library in the Reading Room

Opening Times: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday
Mornings – 10am-1pm
Tuesday 10am-5pm. Closed for lunch 1pm-2pm
Special Collections is closed on Fridays
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Different kinds of flames produced



Frank A. J. L. James, ‘Faraday, Michael (1791–1867)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [, accessed 26 Oct 2017]

W. H. Brock, ‘Crookes, Sir William (1832–1919)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 26 Oct 2017]


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