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Editor’s Note:

W. Mattieu Williams’
“The Boiling of Water” (Abridged)

The best way to study any physical subject is to examine it experimentally, but this is not always possible with everyday means. In this case, however, there is no difficulty.

Take a thin glass vessel, such as a flask, or, better, one of the “beakers,” or thin tumbler-shaped vessels, so largely used in chemical laboratories; partially fill it with ordinary household water, and then place it over the flame of a spirit-lamp, or Bunsen’s, or other smokeless gas-burner. Carefully watch the result, and the following will be observed: first of all, little bubbles will be formed, adhering to the sides of the glass, but ultimately rising to the surface, and there becoming dissipated by diffusion in the air.

This is not boiling, as may be proved by trying the temperature with the finger. What, then, is it?

It is the yielding back of the atmospheric gases which the water has dissolved or condensed within itself. These bubbles have been collected, and by analysis proved to consist of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbonic acid, obtained from the air; but in the water they exist by no means in the same proportions as originally in the air, nor in constant proportions in different samples of water. I need not here go into the quantitative details of these proportions, nor the reasons of their variation, though they are very interesting subjects.

Proceeding with our investigation, we shall find that the bubbles continue to form and rise until the water becomes too hot for the finger to bear immersion. At about this stage something else begins to occur. Much larger bubbles, or rather blisters, are now formed on the bottom of the vessel, immediately over the flame, and they continually collapse into apparent nothingness. Even at this stage a thermometer immersed in the water will show that the boiling-point is not reached. As the temperature rises, these blisters rise higher and higher, become more and more nearly spherical, finally quite so, then detach themselves and rise towards the surface; but the first that make this venture perish in the attempt—they gradually collapse as they rise, and vanish before reaching the surface. The thermometer now shows that the boiling-point is nearly reached, but not quite. Presently the bubbles rise completely to the surface and break there. Now the water is boiling, and the thermometer stands at 212° Fahr. or 100° Cent.

After a moderate period of boiling, however, we may practically regard the water as free from certain limits. In this condition I venture to call it cooked water. Our experiment so far indicates one of the differences between cooked and raw water. The cooked water has been deprived of the atmospheric gases that the raw water contained. By cooling some of the cooked water and tasting it, the difference of flavour is very perceptible; by no means improved, though it is quite possible to acquire a preference for this flat, tasteless liquid.

If a fish be placed in such cooked water it swims for a while with its mouth at the surface, for just there is a film that is reacquiring its charge of oxygen, &c., by absorbing it from the air; but this film is so thin, and so poorly charged, that after a short struggle the fish dies for lack of oxygen in its blood; drowned as truly and completely as an air-breathing animal when immersed in any kind of water.

The chemistry of this is simple enough.