Elements and Compounds

Battery of leyden jars Battery of Leyden jars

Geissler tube with devil's head detail

On loan from the Whipple Museum for the History of Science, Cambridge (Wh. 4414).

Named for its inventor, the German physicist and glassblower Heinrich Geissler (1814-1879), the Geissler tube is a glass cylinder with an electrode at each end. The tube commonly contained an inert gas such as neon or argon at low pressure. An electric current was made to flow through the tube, disassociating electrons from the gas molecules, creating ions. When the electrons recombined with the ions different glowing effects were created, characteristic of the substance inside the tube.
Invented in 1857, Geissler tubes were mass produced from the 1880s for entertainment. This example shows how intricately they could be made by specialist glassblowers. The devil's head feature would have lit up with an eerie coloured glow.

Battery of Leyden jars

On loan from the Whipple Museum for the History of Science, Cambridge (Wh. 3702).

Invented in 1745, the Leyden jar is a simple way of storing static electricity. It consists of a top electrode connected (usually by a chain) to a metal foil coating part of the inside of a glass jar. A matching area on the outside of the jar is also covered with foil. The jar is charged using an electrostatic generator connected to the inner electrode while the outer electrode is grounded. Benjamin Franklin coined the term 'battery' for several connected Leyden jars, on the analogy of a battery of cannons.

John Dalton FRS, A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808)

Dalton's table of symbols representing elements and compounds (from A New System of Chemical Philosophy, 1808).

Letter from Dalton to Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac FRS (1833)

(Royal Society manuscript MM/1/7)

Dalton's letter to the Parisian physicist Gay-Lussac describes experiments 'on the force and specific gravity of vapours of various liquids', a topic in which Gay-Lussac was particularly interested. Here Dalton uses his own system of molecular symbols to illustrate his discussion.

Earthenware beaker, 19th century
Leyden jars, c. 1820

On loan from the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester.

This beaker was used by John Dalton in his experiments in Manchester. It was possibly used to hold mercury. The Leyden jars were probably also used by Dalton. They have a capacity of about 8 ounces, and retain their original metal foil coatings.

John Dalton's molecular models, c. 1810

On loan from the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester.

Dalton was the first scientist to use ball-and-stick models to represent molecules. He asked his friend Peter Ewart, a Manchester engineer, to make a series of models for him. Dalton used these models in lectures to demonstrate his theory of how atoms are arranged in solids, liquids and gases.

Set of Courtauld atomic models by Griffin and George, c. 1960

On loan from the Whipple Museum for the History of Science, Cambridge (Wh. 5815).

Griffin and George designed mass-produced models for students learning chemistry, and this set is extremely well known amongst students of the period. It was developed from the designs of Dr G S Hartley of Courtaulds Ltd in 1952. The models are made of a rigid plastic with a colour scheme designed to stand out in black and white photographs. The set came with scale cards for estimating the size of the molecules (20mm equivalent to 0.1 nm).

Further information

For John Dalton and artefacts relating to his work in Manchester, see the website of the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI).

Image credits

Images of the battery of Leyden jars and Courtauld atomic models have been provided by and are copyright of the Whipple Museum for the History of Science, Cambridge.