Aw, that's not so hot

Posted in: Research, A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

One of the best parts about our jobs as librarians is that we run across some wicked-cool bits of information.  Ever since first reading Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, I've been curious about one particular passage (of course, I wonder about these things because I'm a big time science geek).  The passage reads:

Late experiments shew that the human body will exist in rooms heated to 140°. of Reaumur, equal to 347°. of Farenheit, and 135°. above boiling water.

Just to make sure that's clear: experiments were run that showed the human body will evidently survive in rooms heated to 347°F--more than a hundred degrees above boiling water!

What?!  Is that remotely possible?  And what the heck are these experiments?

I did some poking around and eventually found the experiments in question discussed in a book by Thomas Watson and David Francis Condie, Lectures on the Principles and Practice of Physic Delivered at King's College, London, published in 1855.  It turns out that in 1760 and 1761, Monsieurs Duhamel and Tillet in France were trying to devise a way of saving grains from insect infestation by heating them in sugar-baker's ovens hot enough to kill the insects but not too hot to affect the grain.

They had difficulty determining the precise temperature because the act of drawing the thermometer from the oven (it was attached to a long shovel) cooled the thermometer.  A girl who was tending the oven volunteered to go in and mark with a pencil the height at which the thermometer stood while fully in the oven.  That first reading was 288°F, well above the boiling temperature of water.  The girl assured the men that "she felt no inconvenience."

The scientists were stunned at this, and a series of other experiments were performed and reported in the Philosophical Transactions in 1775 (these a great deal of fun to read).  These gentlemen--who as good Enlightenment men of science experimented on themselves--went into the heated rooms and noted some pretty curious things.  Moving around the room was much worse than standing still.  Their own bodies' internal temperatures didn't change much at all, so that their breath when blown on a thermometer caused it to drop.  Their watch chains, on the other hand, became too hot to touch.  Eggs in the room at the same time roasted hard in twenty minutes while steaks were cooked in thirty-three.  But all this time, exposed to air temperatures above that of boiling water, their breathing rates didn't change much--though they noted that "the pulse was very much quickened."

Yeah, I would think so.  Pretty crazy--but pretty cool, too.

As Carl Sagan once said, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."


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