Thomas Paine and George Washington Conduct an Experiment

The muddy bottom of rivers contains great quantities of impure and often inflammable air (carbureted hydrogen gas), injurious to life; [begin page 309] and which remains entangled in the mud till let loose from thence by some accident. This air is produced by the dissolution and decomposition of any combustible matter falling into the water and sinking into the mud, of which the following circumstance will serve to give some explanation. In the fall of the year that New York was evacuated ( 1783), General Washington had his headquarters at Mrs. Berrian's, at Rocky Hill, in Jersey , and I was there; the Congress then sat at Prince Town. We had several times been told that the river or creek, that runs near the bottom of Rocky Hill, and over which there is a mill, might be set on fire, for that was the term the country people used; and as General Washington had a mind to try the experiment, General Lincoln, who was also there, undertook to make preparation for it against the next evening, November fifth. This was to be done, as we were told, by disturbing the mud at the bottom of the river, and holding something in a blaze, as paper or straw, a little above the surface of the water.

Colonels Humphreys and Cobb were at that time aides-de-camp of General Washington, and those two gentlemen and myself got into an argument respecting the cause. Their opinion was [begin page 310] that, on disturbing the bottom of the river, some bituminous matter arose to the surface, which took fire when the light was put to it; I, on the contrary, supposed that a quantity of inflammable air was let loose, which ascended through the water, and took fire above the surface. Each party held to his opinion, and the next evening the experiment was to be made.

A scow had been stationed in the mill dam, and General Washington, General Lincoln and myself, and I believe Colonel Cobb (for Humphreys was sick), and three or four soldiers with poles, were pub on board the scow. General Washington placed himself at one end of the scow, and I at the other; each of us had a roll of cartridge paper, which we lighted and held over the water, about two or three inches from the surface, when the soldiers began disturbing the bottom of the river with the poles.

As General Washington sat at one end of the scow, and I at the other, I could see better anything that might happen from his light than I could from my own, over which I was nearly perpendicular. When the mud at the bottom was disturbed by the poles, the air bubbles rose fast, and I saw the fire take from General Washington's light and descend from thence to the [begin page 311] surface of the water, in a similar manner as when a lighted candle is held so as to touch the smoke of a candle just blown out, the smoke will take fire, and the fire will descend and light up the candle. This was demonstrative evidence that what was called setting the river on fire was setting on fire the inflammable air that arose out of the mud.

I mentioned this experiment to Mr. Ritten-house of Philadelphia, the next time I went to that city, and our opinion on the case was, that the air or vapor that issued from any combustible matter (vegetable or otherwise) , that underwent a dissolution and decomposition of its parts, either by fire or water in a confined place, so as not to blaze, would be inflammable, and would become flame whenever it came in contact with flame. In order to determine if this was the case, we filled up the breech of a gun barrel about five or six inches with sawdust, and the proper part with dry sand to the top, and after spiking up the touch-hole, put the breech into a smith's furnace and kept it red hot, so as to consume the sawdust; the sand of consequence would prevent any blaze.

We applied a lighted candle to the mouth [begin page 312] of the barrel; as the first vapor that flew off would be humid, it extinguished the candle; but after applying the candle three or four times, the vapor that issued out began to flash; we then tied a bladder over the mouth of the barrel, which the vapor soon filled, and then tying a string round the neck of the bladder, above the muzzle, took the bladder off.

As we could not conveniently make experiments upon the vapor while it was in the bladder, the next operation was to get it into a phial. For this purpose, we took a phial of about three or four ounces, filled it with water, put a cork slightly into it, and introducing it into the neck of the bladder, worked the cork out, by getting hold of it through the bladder, into which the water then emptied itself, and the air in the bladder ascended into the phial; we then put the cork into the phial, and took it from the bladder. It was now in a convenient condition for experiment.

We put a lighted match into the phial, and the air or vapor in it blazed up in the manner of a chimney on fire; we extinguished it two or three times, by stopping the mouth of the phial; and putting the lighted match to it again it repeatedly took fire, till the vapor was spent, [begin page 313] and the phial became filled with atmospheric air. These two experiments, that in which some combustible substance (branches and leaves of trees) had been decomposed by water, in the mud; and this, where the decomposition had been produced by fire, without blazing, shows that a species of air injurious to life, when taken into the lungs, may be generated from substances which, in themselves, are harmless. It is by means similar to these that charcoal, which is made by fire without blazing, emits a vapor destructive to life. I now come to apply these cases, and the reasoning deduced therefrom, to account for the cause of the yellow fever.


They light aflame methane gases stirred up from the Millstone River as part of a bet.

Folksonomies: history founding fathers america experiment

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General Washington:Person (0.865383 (negative:-0.241580))

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Fire (0.690893): dbpedia | freebase
Hydrogen (0.681961): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Stanford prison experiment (0.675615): website | dbpedia | freebase | yago
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 The Cause of the Yellow Fever
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Paine, Thomas and Rickman , Thomas Clio (1908), The Cause of the Yellow Fever , The life and writings of Thomas Paine, Retrieved on 2011-12-16
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  • Folksonomies: biography