Oil on troubled waters

Somewhere around 1770, Benjamin Franklin conducted an interesting experiment at Clapham Common in London (photo below by Ewan Munro):

According to Franklin’s Memoirs, “At length being at Clapham, where there is, on the common, a large pond, which I observed to be one day to be very rough with the wind, I fetched out a cruet of oil, and dropt a little of it on the water. I saw it spread itself with surprising swiftness upon the surface; but the effect of smoothing the waves was not produced: for I had applied it first on the leeward side of the pond, where the waves were largest, and the wind drove my oil back upon the shore. I then went to the windward side, where they [the waves] began to form; and there the oil, though not more than a tea-spoonful, produced an instant calm over a space several yards square, which spread amazingly, and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre, as smooth as a looking glass.

After this, I contrived to take with me, whenever I went into the country, a little oil in the upper hollow joint of my bamboo cane, with which I might repeat the experiment as opportunity should offer, and found it constantly to succeed.

In these experiments, one circumstance struck me with particular surprise. This was the sudden, wide, and forcible spreading of a drop of oil on the face of the water, which I do not know that anybody has hitherto considered. If a drop of oil is put on a polished marble table, or on a looking glass that lies horizontally, the drop remains in place, spreading very little. But when put on water, it spreads instantly many feet round, becoming so thin as to produce the prismatic colors, for a considerable space, and beyond them so much thinner as to be invisible, except in its effect of smoothing the waves at a much greater distance.

A century later, Lord Rayleigh went on to calculate the thickness of such oil layers (which, as they spread, become transparent and monomolecular) as 1.63 nm, which must therefore be (roughly) the length of an oil molecule. See also the blog post here.

Oil on the water (photo: “alicepopkorn”)


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