The Library of Original Sources, Vol 8



Amadeo Avogadro was born in Turin, Italy, August 9, 1776. He studied law at the Turin University and received his doctor’s degree in 1796. For the next ten years he was in the government employ. He did not begin his scientific work until 1806. In 1809 he was made professor of physics at Vercelli.

After considering the recently discovered laws that all gases expand alike for like temperature and pressure, that they combine in definite multiple proportions by volume and weight to make a definite volume of the compound, he advanced the theory that this could occur only if the molecules of all gases are the same distance apart for the same temperature and pressure, that is, that the same volume, under like conditions, always contains the same number of molecules. It was long before this law was accepted, but half a century later its truth became pretty well acknowledged. The law, of course, implies that the weights of the same volume of two gases are in the same relation as their molecular weights.

In 1820 he became professor of physics at Turin University. He died July 9, 1865.

A still further extension of the atomic theory was made by Pierre Louis Dulong. Dulong was born at Rouen, France, February 12, 1785. He was one of Berthollet’s pupils. In 1813 with Petit he discovered that elementary atoms have the same capacity for heat in proportion to their atomic weights. Dulong died in 1838. Thus by the labors of Dalton, Gay-Lussac, Avogadro, and Dulong, the greatest theory of chemistry and one of the greatest of all the natural sciences was developed and established.

The Molecules in Gases Proportional to the


M. Gay-Lussac has shown in an interesting Memoir (Mmoires de la Socit d’Arcueil, Tome II.) that gases always unite in a very simpleproportion by volume, and that when the result of the union is a gas, its volume also is very simply related to those of its components. But the quantitative proportions of substances in compounds seem only to depend on the relative number of molecules which combine, and on the number of composite molecules which result. It must then be admitted that very simple relations also exist between the volumes of gaseous substances and the numbers of simple or compound molecules which form them. The first hypothesis to present itself in this connection, and apparently even the only admissible one, is the supposition that the number of integral molecules in any gases is always the same for equal volumes, or always proportional to the volumes. Indeed, if we were to suppose that the number of molecules contained in a given volume were different for different gases, it would scarcely be possible to conceive that the law regulating the distance of molecules could give in all cases relations so simple as those which the facts just detailed compel us to acknowledge between the volume and the number of molecules. On the other hand, it is very well conceivable that the molecules of gases being at such a distance that their mutual attraction cannot be exercised, their varying attraction for caloric may be limited to condensing a greater or smaller quantity around them, without the atmosphere formed by this fluid having any greater extent in the one case than in the other, and, consequently, without the distance between the molecules varying; or, in other words, without the number of molecules contained in a given volume being different. Dalton, it is true, has proposed a hypothesis directly opposed to this, namely, that the quantity of caloric is always the same for the molecules of all bodies whatsoever in the gaseous state, and that the greater or less attraction for caloric only results in producing a greater or less condensation of this quantity around the molecules, and thus varying the distance between the molecules themselves. But in our present ignorance of the manner in which this attraction of the molecules for caloric is exerted, there is nothing to decide us a priori in favour of the one of these hypotheses rather than the other; and we should rather be inclined to adopt a neutral hypothesis, which would make the distance between the molecules and the quantities of caloric vary according to unknown laws, were it not that the hypothesis we have just proposed is based on that simplicity of relation between the volumes of gases on combination, which would appear to be otherwise inexplicable.

Setting out from this hypothesis, it is apparent that we have themeans of determining very easily the relative masses of the molecules of substances obtainable in the gaseous state, and the relative number of these molecules in compounds; for the ratios of the masses of the molecules are then the same as those of the densities of the different gases at equal temperature and pressure, and the relative number of molecules in a compound is given at once by the ratio of the volumes of the gases that form it. For example, since the numbers 1.10359 and 0.07321 express the densities of the two gases oxygen and hydrogen compared to that of atmospheric air as unity, and the ratio of the two numbers consequently represents the ratio between the masses of equal volumes of these two gases, it will also represent on our hypothesis the ratio of the masses of their molecules. Thus the mass of the molecule of oxygen will be about 15 times that of the molecule of hydrogen, or, more exactly, as 15.074 to 1. In the same way the mass of the molecule of nitrogen will be to that of hydrogen as 0.96913 to 0.07321, that is, as 13, or more exactly 13.238, to 1. On the other hand, since we know that the ratio of the volumes of hydrogen and oxygen in the formation of water is 2 to 1, it follows that water results from the union of each molecule of oxygen with two molecules of hydrogen. Similarly, according to the proportions by volume established by M. Gay-Lussac for the elements of ammonia, nitrous oxide, nitrous gas, and nitric acid, ammonia will result from the union of one molecule of nitrogen with three of hydrogen, nitrous oxide from one molecule of oxygen with two of nitrogen, nitrous gas from one molecule of nitrogen with one of oxygen, and nitric acid from one of nitrogen with two of oxygen.


There is a consideration which appears at first sight to be opposed to the admission of our hypothesis with respect to compound substances. It seems that a molecule composed of two or more elementary molecules should have its mass equal to the sum of the masses of these molecules; and that in particular, if in a compound one molecule of one substance unites with two or more molecules of another substance, the number of compound molecules should remain the same as the number of molecules of the first substance. Accordingly, on our hypothesis when a gas combines with two or more times its volume of another gas, the resulting compound, if gaseous, must have a volume equal to that of the first of these gases. Now, in general, this is not actually the case. For instance, the volume of water in the gaseous state is, as M. Gay-Lussac has shown, twice as great as the volume of oxygen which enters into it,or, what comes to the same thing, equal to that of the hydrogen instead of being equal to that of the oxygen. But a means of explaining facts of this type in conformity with our hypothesis presents itself naturally enough: we suppose, namely, that the constituent molecules of any simple gas whatever (i.e., the molecules which are at such a distance from each other that they cannot exercise their mutual action) are not formed of a solitary elementary molecule, but are made up of a certain number of these molecules united by attraction to form a single one; and further, that when molecules of another substance unite with the former to form a compound molecule, the integral molecule which should result splits up into two or more parts (or integral molecules) composed of half, quarter, &c., the number of elementary molecules going to form the constituent molecule of the first substance, combined with half, quarter, &c., the number of constituent molecules of the second substance that ought to enter into combination with one constituent molecule of the first substance (or, what comes to the same thing, combined with a number equal to this last of half-molecules, quarter-molecules, &c, of the second substance); so that the number of integral molecules of the compound becomes double, quadruple, &c., what it would have been if there had been no splitting-up, and exactly what is necessary to satisfy the volume of the resulting gas.

On reviewing the various compound gases most generally known, I only find examples of duplication of the volume relatively to the volume of that one of the constituents which combines with one or more volumes of the other. We have already seen this for water. In the same way, we know that the volume of ammonia gas is twice that of the nitrogen which enters into it. M. Gay-Lussac has also shown that the volume of nitrous oxide is equal to that of the nitrogen which forms part of it, and consequently is twice that of the oxygen. Finally, nitrous gas, which contains equal volumes of nitrogen and oxygen, has a volume equal to the sum of the two constituent gases, that is to say, double that of each of them. Thus in all these cases there must be a division of the molecule into two; but it is possible that in other cases the division might be into four, eight, &c. The possibility of this division of compound molecules might have been conjectured a priori; for otherwise the integral molecules of bodies composed of several substances with a relatively large number of molecules, would come to have a mass excessive in comparison with the molecules of simple substances. We might therefore imagine that nature had some means of bringing them backto the order of the latter, and the facts have pointed out to us the existence of such means. Besides, there is another consideration which would seem to make us admit in some cases the division in question; for how could one otherwise conceive a real combination between two gaseous substances uniting in equal volumes without condensation, such as takes place in the formation of nitrous gas? Supposing the molecules to remain at such a distance that the mutual attraction of those of each gas could not be exercised, we cannot imagine that a new attraction could take place between the molecules of one gas and those of the other. But on the hypothesis of division of the molecule, it is easy to see that the combination really reduces two different molecules to one, and that there would be contraction by the whole volume of one of the gases if each compound molecule did not split up into two molecules of the same nature. M. Gay-Lussac clearly saw that, according to the facts, the diminution of volume on the combination of gases cannot represent the approximation of their elementary molecules. The division of molecules on combination explains to us how these two things may be made independent of each other.


Dalton, on arbitrary suppositions as to the most likely relative number of molecules in compounds, has endeavoured to fix ratios between the masses of the molecules of simple substances. Our hypothesis, supposing it well rounded, puts us in a position to confirm or rectify his results from precise data, and, above all, to assign the magnitude of compound molecules according to the volumes of the gaseous compounds, which depend partly on the division of molecules entirely unsuspected by this physicist.

Thus Dalton supposes that water is formed by the union of hydrogen and oxygen, molecule to molecule. From this, and from the ratio by weight of the two components, it would follow that the mass of the molecule of oxygen would be to that of hydrogen as 7 1-2 to 1 nearly, or, according to Dalton’s evaluation, as 6 to 1. This ratio on our hypothesis is, as we saw, twice as great, namely, as 15 to 1. As for the molecule of water, its mass ought to be roughly expressed by 15+2—17 (taking for unity that of hydrogen), if there were no division of the molecule into two; but on account of this division it is reduced to half, 8 1-2, or more exactly 8.537, as may also be found directly by dividing the density of aqueous yapour 0.625 (Gay-Lussac) by the density of hydrogen 0.0732. This mass only differs from 7, that assigned to it byDalton, by the difference in the values for the composition of water; so that in this respect Dalton’s result is approximately correct from the combination of two compensating errors,—the error in the mass of the molecule of oxygen, and his neglect of the division of the molecule.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: The Library of Original Sources, Vol 8

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Library of Original Sources, Vol 8

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: "Avogadro," The Library of Original Sources, Vol 8 in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 385–389. Original Sources, accessed October 1, 2023,

MLA: . "Avogadro." The Library of Original Sources, Vol 8, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 385–389. Original Sources. 1 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Avogadro' in The Library of Original Sources, Vol 8. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pp.385–389. Original Sources, retrieved 1 October 2023, from