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Chemical History of the Candle

Chat times for Summer 2018
11:00a - 12:30p ET/8:00a-9:30a PT

Dr. Christe Ann McMenomy

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Introduction to Chemistry, using Faraday's The Chemical History of the Candle
Scholars Online Summer Course

I propose to bring before you, in the course of these lectures, the Chemical History of a Candle. There is no better, there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle. There is not a law under which any part of this universe is governed which does not come into play, and is not touched upon, in these phenomena.

— from the first of six lectures by Michael Faraday,
delivered in 1861 as the Royal Institution's Christmas Course of Lectures Adapted to a Juvenile Auditory.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was one of the greatest experimental scientists the world has ever seen. His discoveries and inventions include the concept of the electric field, the electric motor, the electric generator, laws governing magnetic induction of electrical current, isolation of a number of chemical compounds, and proof that magnetic forces bend polarized light.

Childless himself, Faraday loved teaching children, and inaugurated a series of lectures for children at the Royal Institute in 1825. The lecturer performed experiments live on stage, and the first six rows of the Institute's Lecture Hall, usually occupied by prestigious Fellows of the Royal Society, were reserved for the exclusive use of visitors under 14 years of age. Between 1825 and his death in 1861, Faraday delivered nineteen of the lecture series himself, introducing the latest concepts of chemistry, electricity, the properties of metals, and forces of nature to his "juvenile auditory". The original "Mr. Wizard", his lectures involved lively descriptions and nearly constant experiments or demonstrations performed (after much practice!) in front of his live audience. In the process, he revolutionized how science was taught to children. The Royal Institute has sponsored the lectures continuously since 1825, the only exception being the years from 1939-1942, when London was under attack. Recent lectures have been given by such notable scientists as David Attenborough and Carl Sagan.

Our eight week course uses the six lectures Faraday delivered on the chemistry of a burning candle in 1861 to establishing fundamental concepts in chemistry. We are lucky to have the exact text of the lectures, since an enterprising newspaper reporter took them down verbatim in shorthand. We will use these lectures as Faraday himself did — going from direct observation to a discussion of scientific thought and experimentation, chemical composition of wax and the nature of matter, combustion reactions, forces and energy, and the history of the human scientific endeavor.

All students will perform adaptations of Faraday's experiments to develop proper experimental techniques (with an emphasis on lab safety) then submit their lab reports for teacher and peer review, and discuss their experiences in online class sessions. This is an excellent opportunity for junior high and early high school students to prepare for high school level science courses.

Advanced students planning on taking Honors or AP Chemistry may opt for more challenging assignments and lab exercises which might be used to fulfill the Scholars Online Chemistry or other AP course requirements and reduce lab work required during the regular academic year.

Because Scholars Online personnel cannot oversee the experiments, parents must sign an agreement to provide adequate supervision during performance of experiments.


Click on Lecture Schedule to see schedule for the 2018 Summer Session.


Click on Texts to see the required texts for this course.


Click on Labs to see the required lab equipment for experiments used in this course.


Curiosity, and adequate time to perform and write reports on at least four experiments during the summer.

Enrollment: Enroll in this course at Scholars Online