The myth of the boiling point

Sci Prog. 2008;91(Pt 3):219-40. doi: 10.3184/003685008X360632.


Around 1800, many reputable scientists reported significant variations in the temperature of pure water boiling under normal atmospheric pressure. The reported variations included a difference of over 1 degree C between boiling in metallic and glass vessels (Gay-Lussac), and "superheating" up to 112 degrees C on extracting dissolved air out of water (De Luc). I have confirmed most of these observations in my own experiments, many of which are described in this paper. Water boils at the "boiling point" only under very particular circumstances. Our common-sense intuition about the fixedness of the boiling point is only sustained by our limited experience.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Portrait
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • England
  • France
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Physics / history*
  • Thermometers / history
  • Transition Temperature*
  • Water*


  • Water

Personal name as subject

  • Jean-André De Luc
  • Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac
  • Henry Cavendish