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George Washington, Scientist

September 22, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 38

The renewed focus on methane reminds one of what can be considered the first major American scientific experiment, namely the demonstration by George Washington and Thomas Paine that the Will-o’-the-Wisp of bogs and marshes was due to a flammable gas (C&EN, July 7, page 10).

The Washington-Paine flammable gas experiment occurred 63 days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris on Sept. 3, 1783, which officially sanctioned the birth of the nation. After the cessation of fighting in the Revolutionary War, General Washington and the Continental Congress in Princeton, N.J., awaited the arrival of the treaty on Oct. 31, 1783. This period included celebrations and activities, one of which was the Washington-Paine marsh gas demonstration on the Millstone River at Rocky Hill, N.J., on Nov. 5.

Washington and Paine proved that the Will-o’-the-Wisp folktale that supposedly lured unsuspecting travelers to a boggy death was in fact due to a flammable gas released from muddy sediments, as detailed by Paine in his “The Cause of Yellow Fever,” 1806. “When the mud at the bottom was disturbed by poles, the air bubbles rose fast, and I saw the fire take from General Washington’s light and descend from thence to the surface of the water. … This was demonstrative evidence that what was called setting the river on fire was setting on fire the inflammable air that rose from the mud.”

These observations showed that a flammable gas rather than a bituminous floating substance was the basis for the Will-o’-the-Wisp. Alessandro Volta performed a similar experiment at Lake Como, Italy, in 1776 and is credited as the discoverer of the flammable nature of the gas. However, there is no evidence that news of the Volta demonstration reached General Washington during the Revolutionary War. These experiments initiated understanding of the microbial process today termed methanogenesis.

Such experimentation was illustrative of the scientific concerns of national leaders during the Enlightenment. It is a delight to reflect on how our first President had scientific interests. The Washington-Paine accomplishment is considered the first truly significant American scientific experiment and merits greater recognition. A reenactment was performed at Rutgers University on the 225th anniversary of the occasion.

Doug Eveleigh
New Brunswick, N.J.



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