The Early History of the Vacuum

The Early History of the Vacuum

Believe it or not the science of vacuums has been around since ancient Greece. Or, rather, it was the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus (c. 460 to 35 BC) who first proposed that our world is comprised of tiny particles called atomos (Greek: undividable).  Of course, we know these, today, as atoms.  

Early History

Democritus suggested that the empty space exists between atoms; and this empty space obeys the general laws of mechanics.  He called this space a “vacuum” (from the Latin “vacuus” which means “empty”; or “vacare” which means “to be empty). Together with his mentor Leucippus, Democritus may have been the first to contemplate the concept of a vacuum and, in fact, invent such a thing.

What might be even more interesting, perhaps, is that the dominating thinker of the era—Aristotle (c. 384 to 322 BC) denied the very existence of these vacuums. As a matter of fact, he was actually quite conflicted with the idea that the universe could be comprised of enumerable, individual particles.  You may recall that Aristotle theorized that nature consists of the four basic elements (water, earth, air, and fire).

Vacuums and the Middle Ages

Aristotle’s contemplations remained at the height of both the philosophical and scientific communities for centuries to follow.  Even through the 14th c the idea of this “empty space” was not well-received:  both Descartes and the whole of the Catholic Church denied their existence.  Actually, if you mentioned the idea of a vacuum or tried to investigate it, you would have been publicly shamed or even executed (as was the case of the scientific investigator Bruno—1548 to 1600 AD—who was burned at the stake).

However, when Galileo Galilei (1564 to 1642) proved his theory that air had both weight and density, scientific theory began to change.  For the first time in recorded history, air was regarded as a substance with a specific weight. This, then, evolved ideas related to air, specifically in the effect of removing air from any given space (thus, a vacuum).

Proving the Existence of A Vacuum

Galilei’s experiment led to more experiments, which explored the concept using other elements.  Over time, these experiments continued to provide validity to the existence of the mysterious vacuum.  These early experiments used specially built equipment to investigate the conundrum; this includes the famous Christiaan Huygens (1629 to 1695) experiment which proved the free fall speed of a feather and a piece of lead are precisely equal in a LeDab vacuum.

 

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