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method of Segner and Gay Lussac, afterwards carried out by Quincke, of measuring the dimensions of large drops of mercury on a horizontal or slightly concave surface, and those of large bubbles of air in transparent liquids resting against the under side of a horizontal plate of a substance wetted by the liquid.

In 1831 Siméon Denis Poisson published his Nouvelle Théorie de l’action capillaire. He maintained that there is a rapid variation of density near the surface of a liquid, and he gave very strong reasons, which have been only strengthened by subsequent discoveries, for believing that this is the case. He proceeded to an investigation of the equilibrium of a fluid on the hypothesis of uniform density, and arrived at the conclusion that on this hypothesis none of the observed capillary phenomena would take place, and that, therefore, Laplace’s theory, in which the density is supposed uniform, is not only insufficient but erroneous. In particular he maintained that the constant pressure K, which occurs in Laplace’s theory, and which on that theory is very large, must be in point of fact very small, but the equation of equilibrium from which he concluded this is itself defective. Laplace assumed that the liquid has uniform density, and that the attraction of its molecules extends to a finite though insensible distance. On these assumptions his results are certainly right, and are confirmed by the independent method of Gauss, so that the objections raised against them by Poisson fall to the ground. But whether the assumption of uniform density be physically correct is a very different question, and Poisson rendered good service to science in showing how to carry on the investigation on the hypothesis that the density very near the surface is different from that in the interior of the fluid.

The result, however, of Poisson’s investigation is practically equivalent to that already obtained by Laplace. In both theories the equation of the liquid surface is the same, involving a constant H, which can be determined only by experiment. The only difference is in the manner in which this quantity H depends on the law of the molecular forces and the law of density near the surface of the fluid, and as these laws are unknown to us we cannot obtain any test to discriminate between the two theories.

We have now described the principal forms of the theory of capillary action during its earlier development. In more recent times the method of Gauss has been modified so as to take account of the variation of density near the surface, and its language has been translated in terms of the modern doctrine of the conservation of energy.[1]

J. A. F. Plateau (Statique expérimentale et théorique des liquides), who made elaborate study of the phenomena of surface-tension, adopted the following method of getting rid of the effects of gravity. He formed a mixture of alcohol and water of the same density as olive oil, and then introduced a quantity of oil into the mixture. It assumes the form of a sphere under the action of surface-tension alone. He then, by means of rings of iron-wire, disks and other contrivances, altered the form of certain parts of the surface of the oil. The free portions of the surface then assume new forms depending on the equilibrium of surface-tension. In this way he produced a great many of the forms of equilibrium of a liquid under the action of surface-tension alone, and compared them with the results of mathematical investigation. He also greatly facilitated the study of liquid films by showing how to form a liquid, the films of which will last for twelve or even for twenty-four hours. The debt which science owes to Plateau is not diminished by the fact that, while investigating these beautiful phenomena, he never himself saw them, having lost his sight in about 1840.

G. L. van der Mensbrugghe (Mém. de l’Acad. Roy. de Belgique, xxxvii., 1873) devised a great number of beautiful illustrations of the phenomena of surface-tension, and showed their connexion with the experiments of Charles Tomlinson on the figures formed by oils dropped on the clean surface of water.

Athanase Dupré in his 5th, 6th and 7th Memoirs on the Mechanical Theory of Heat (Ann. de Chimie et de Physique, 1866–1868) applied the principles of thermodynamics to capillary phenomena, and the experiments of his son Paul were exceedingly ingenious and well devised, tracing the influence of surface-tension in a great number of very different circumstances, and deducing from independent methods the numerical value of the surface-tension. The experimental evidence which Dupré obtained bearing on the molecular structure of liquids must be very valuable, even if our present opinions on this subject should turn out to be erroneous.

F. H. R. Lüdtge (Pogg. Ann. cxxxix. p. 620) experimented on liquid films, and showed how a film of a liquid of high surface-tension is replaced by a film of lower surface-tension. He also experimented on the effects of the thickness of the film, and came to the conclusion that the thinner a film is, the greater is its tension. This result, however, was tested by Van der Mensbrugghe, who found that the tension is the same for the same liquid whatever be the thickness, as long as the film does not burst. [The continued coexistence of various thicknesses, as evidenced by the colours in the same film, affords an instantaneous proof of this conclusion.] The phenomena of very thin liquid films deserve the most careful study, for it is in this way that we are most likely to obtain evidence by which we may test the theories of the molecular structure of liquids.

Sir W. Thomson (afterwards Lord Kelvin) investigated the effect of the curvature of the surface of a liquid on the thermal equilibrium between the liquid and the vapour in contact with it. He also calculated the effect of surface-tension on the propagation of waves on the surface of a liquid, and determined the minimum velocity of a wave, and the velocity of the wind when it is just sufficient to disturb the surface of still water.

Theory of Capillary Action

When two different fluids are placed in contact, they may either diffuse into each other or remain separate. In some cases diffusion takes place to a limited extent, after which the resulting mixtures do not mix with each other. The same substance may be able to exist in two different states at the same temperature and pressure, as when water and its saturated vapour are contained in the same vessel. The conditions under which the thermal and mechanical equilibrium of two fluids, two mixtures, or the same substance in two physical states in contact with each other, is possible belong to thermodynamics. All that we have to observe at present is that, in the cases in which the fluids do not mix of themselves, the potential energy of the system must be greater when the fluids are mixed than when they are separate.

It is found by experiment that it is only very close to the bounding surface of a liquid that the forces arising from the mutual action of its parts have any resultant effect on one of its particles. The experiments of Quincke and others seem to show that the extreme range of the forces which produce capillary action lies between a thousandth and a twenty-thousandth part of a millimetre.

We shall use the symbol to denote this extreme range, beyond which the action of these forces may be regarded as insensible. If denotes the potential energy of unit of mass of the substance, we may treat as sensibly constant except within a distance of the bounding surface of the fluid. In the interior of the fluid it has the uniform value . In like manner the density, , is sensibly equal to the constant quantity , which is its value in the interior of the liquid, except within a distance of the bounding surface. Hence if is the volume of a mass of liquid bounded by a surface whose area is , the integral


where the integration is to be extended throughout the volume

  1. See Enrico Betti, Teoria della Capillarità: Nuovo Cimento (1867); a memoir by M. Stahl, “Ueber einige Punckte in der Theorie der Capillarerscheinungen,” Pogg. Ann. cxxxix. p. 239 (1870); and J. D. Van der Waal’s Over de Continuiteit van den Gasen Vloeistoftoestand. A good account of the subject from a mathematical point of view will be found in James Challis’s “Report on the Theory of Capillary Attraction,” Brit. Ass. Report, iv. p. 235 (1834).