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Published on June 18th, 2015 | by Glenn Meyers


Carbon Dioxide & Global Warming Linked In 1856: Perlin Interview Part 2

June 18th, 2015 by  

Many of us today might understand the relationship between carbon dioxide (CO2), the atmosphere, and climate change. However, we have been provided with little historic background on how the issue of global warming draws increasing attention from the likes of world leaders as highly regarded as Pope Francis.

Aside from  a plenitude of global warming/CO2 climate change naysayers (far more than solid logic should allow), there is convincing evidence the CO2/global warming relationship was first reported in 1856. Historian and physicist John Perlin continues with an interview about this too-little-understood phenomenon. Perlin, for those who recall our past interview series on photovoltaics, is the author of the comprehensive work on the step-by-step development of all solar energy technologies: Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy.

co2 solid shutterstock_172511978

Meyers: We concluded our last session discussing Eunice Foote and an 1856 paper she published in the Journal of American Science, titled “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays.”  What was the basis of this work?

Perlin: Unlike Saussure, she placed various atmospheric gases in the glazed receivers into which thermometers were inserted. She wanted “to determine the different circumstances that affect the thermal action of the rays of light that proceed from the sun.”

Meyers: Please provide us with the specifics in her research.

Perlin: Neither oxygen nor hydrogen, when pumped into the glass containers and exposed to the sun, displayed much difference in temperature in comparison to the control vessel containing air. But upon pumping carbon dioxide into another receiver, also exposed to sunlight, Mrs. Foote wrote the mercury in the thermometer leaped, with the one “containing the carbon dioxide becoming much hotter, “more so than the others.” She added on being removed from sunlight the temperature took many times as long in cooling as the other gases did.

Meyers: Foote’s conclusion?

Perlin: She wrote, “An atmosphere of that gas — i.e., carbon dioxide, would give to our earth a high temperature.”

Meyers: Something we are quite familiar with today. Where did Foote’s work then lead?

Perlin: Several decades later, the Swedish Nobel Laureate Svante Arrhenius tested how much heat carbon dioxide could trap. Arrhenius, as did the rest of the scientific community of his day, had read about the reenactment of Saussure’s hot box experiment by the astrophysicist Samuel Pierpont Langley at Pike’s Peak. While the outside temperature stayed a little under 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature inside the insulated glass-covered box, when exposed to the sun, rose to temperatures above the boiling point of water. The amazing heat trapping quality of glass, as demonstrated by Langley, piqued Arrhenius’ interest in the ideas of Fourier, Pouillet and Foote’s endowment to the atmosphere glass-like properties of transparency to incoming solar radiation and opaqueness to its subsequent emission as heat radiation after striking the earth.

Meyers: So what did Arrhenius discover?

Perlin: The heat-retaining qualities of carbon dioxide in the sunlight/sunheat exchange between the earth and the sky especially aroused his curiosity. Extrapolating data supplied by Langley, Arrhenius calculated that the doubling of carbon dioxide in the air, though it only composes an extremely minute proportion of the atmosphere’s volume – just .03 percent – increases the earth’s temperature by a little over seven degrees Fahrenheit.

MeyersWhat did many in the scientific community in 19th century conclude from these discoveries?

Perlin An 1856 issue of Scientific American praised Eunice Foote’s experiment for linking the high amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that had prevailed before the Carboniferous Age – when plants and tress began to cover the earth – to the high temperatures on earth that also existed in this earlier period. Indeed, beginning in Carboniferous times, according to Arrhenius, “a great portion of the carbonic acid [carbon dioxide] has disappeared from the atmosphere of the earth and has been stored up as coal, lignite, peat, petroleum or asphalt [plant and tree remains]. Oxygen was liberated at the same time and passed into our atmospheric sea. [And] it has been calculated that the amount of oxygen in the air corresponds to the mass of fossil coal. The suggestion appears,” the Swedish scientist concluded , “that [much of] the oxygen of the air may have been formed at the expense of the carbonic acid in the air.”

But by the end of the 19th century, Arrhenius observed, the combustion of coal by industry was already upsetting this balance, overwhelming the earth’s natural removal of carbon dioxide seven times over. And on a more ominous note for future generations, he wrote, “Carbonic acid in the air must be increasing at a constant rate as long as the consumption of coal, petroleum, etc., is maintained at its present figure and a still more rapid rate, if this consumption continues.” Then the question naturally arose, do we want to return to a pre-Carboniferous earth where the fossil record clearly warns that only the tiniest of creatures could survive on land?Then the question naturally arose, do we want to return to a pre-Carboniferous earth where the fossil record clearly warns that only the tiniest of creatures could survive on land.

Photo: Carbon dioxide solid in flask via Shutterstock
Chapters from John Perlin’s Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy

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About the Author

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he’s been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

  • go2green

    A lot of people try to ignore the work done over 100 years ago as it does not fit their ‘scientists are being paid to lie’ agenda.

    • Kevin McKinney

      Indeed, and also the ‘climate science is too young and immature’ meme.

  • Kevin McKinney

    John Tyndall generally gets the credit for linking CO2 to Fourier’s posited greenhouse effect; his experiments began in 1859. I wonder if he was influenced in any way by Mrs. Foote’s work? Tyndall himself wrote:

    “The researches on glaciers which I have had the honor of submitting from time to time to the notice of the Royal Society, directed my attention in a special manner to the observations and speculations of De Saussure, Fourier, M. Pouillet, and Mr. Hopkins, on the transmission of solar and terrestrial heat through the earth’s atmosphere. This gave practical effect to a desire which I had previously entertained to make the mutual action of radiant heat and gases of all kinds the subject of an experimental inquiry.”

    So perhaps not. And I seem to recall that he was surprised to discover how thermally opaque CO2 and water vapor–much less “olefiant gas”–were. Presumably, had he known of Foote’s research, that might have been less surprising.

    Tyndall’s story:


  • Dag Johansen

    Naomi Oreskes does great speeches & books on the history of the science of global warming.

  • Martin

    Well how about this experiment, any person who states/insists that CO2 does not affect our climate will be provided with this choice :
    A number of chambers, glass covered, with different amounts of gases, including CO2 predicted around 2100 and they have to spent ONE DAY in on a sunny day, with a view of the other chambers and the temperature in those other chambers on that same day!
    But let them read about the 1856 experiment first.

    • Martin

      If the current Pope can understand the threat of climate change to our way of life (maybe some people think is a radical) why can some other people/politicians understand that as well (or are they that bought and that ignorant?) !

      • Bob_Wallace

        According to Bob Ingles, the South Carolina ex-Representative who lost his election because he acknowledged climate change, many/most Republicans serving in Congress understand that climate change is happening, why it is happening, and what the consequences could be. But they feel they can’t be open about their understanding and keep their positions.

        • Martin

          I guess in that case it is not the politicians who are ignorant but the common people, that is what frustrates me, is there that much lack of common sense???

          • Bob_Wallace

            If your TV station, newspaper and radio station tell you that climate change is natural, that we need guns to protect us from the “others”, and that downsizing our government to the point that it no longer functions are the right things to do what else would you expect people to believe.

          • Martin

            Well maybe mother nature will ‘fix’ things, new sicknesses, stronger, smarter pests , major weather events etc.
            I think the planet will survive even if the human race will not.

  • Every person working in green or clean or sustainable or renewable or cool technology should study this post. Then print it out. Decoupage one copy and frame it on the wall. Reduce another copy to wallet size and laminate. It is completely insane how many people don’t understand the history and fundamentals of the greenhouse effect, in all sectors of the economy and at all levels of brilliance or lack there of.

    The greenhouse effect is why there is a rising clean technology industry. It is the driver for EVs, PV solar, wind, and Tina’s tidal power thingy. That’s it. Not libertarianism. Not disruption. Not millennials and their tech savvy connectedness. It’s the frigging greenhouse effect.

    The worst is when discussion gets bombarded by paid shills working in public relations on social media and as rapid response blog commenters. Cleantechnica controls this, but many very reputable media company blogs still have a million business majors cum climate experts comment on the “theory” of greenhouse effect. As if it’s still being debated by scientists.

    End of rant. Now get off my lawn you kids.

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