A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900]

Author: Henry Cavendish  | Date: 1798

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From Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society of London, Vol. LXXXVIII, pp. 469–526, 1798.

Many years ago, the late Rev. JOHN MICHELL, of this Society, contrived a method of determining the density of the earth, by rendering sensible the attraction of small quantities of matter; but, as he was engaged in other pursuits, he did not complete the apparatus till a short time before his death, and did not live to make any experiments with it. After his death, the apparatus came to the Rev. FRANCIS JOHN HYDE WOLLASTON, Jacksonian Professor at Cambridge, who, not having conveniences for making experiments with it, in the manner he could wish, was so good as to give it to me.

The apparatus is very simple; it consists of a wooden arm, 6 feet long, made so as to unite great strength with little weight. This arm is suspended in an horizontal position, by a slender wire 40 inches long, and to each extremity is hung a leaden ball, about 2 inches in diameter; and the whole is inclosed in a narrow wooden case, to defend it from the wind.

As no more force is required to make this arm turn round on its centre, than what is necessary to twist the suspending wire, it is plain, that if the wire is sufficiently slender, the most minute force, such as the attraction of a leaden weight a few inches in diameter, will be sufficient to draw the arm sensibly aside. The weights which Mr. MICHELL intended to use were 8 inches diameter. One of these was to be placed on one side the case, opposite to one of the balls, and as near it as could conveniently be done, and the other on the other side, opposite to the other ball, so that the attraction of both these weights would conspire in drawing the arm aside; and, when its position, as affected by these weights, was ascertained, the weights were to be removed to the other side of the case, so as to draw the arm the contrary way, and the position of the arm was to be again determined; and, consequently, half the difference of these positions would shew how much the arm was drawn aside by the attraction of the weights.

In order to determine from hence the density of the earth, it is necessary to ascertain what force is required to draw the arm aside through a given space. This Mr. MICHELL intended to do, by

FIG. 7.—The apparatus used by Cavendish to determine the density of the earth, 1798.

putting the arm in motion, and observing the time of its vibrations, from which it may easily be computed.*


As I was convinced of the necessity of guarding against this source of error [changes of temperature], I resolved to place the apparatus in a room which should remain constantly shut, and to observe the motion of the arm from without, by means of a telescope; and to suspend the leaden weights in such a manner, that I could move them without entering into the room. This difference in the manner of observing, rendered it necessary to make some alteration in Mr. MICHELL’S apparatus; and, as there were some parts of it which I thought not so convenient as could be wished, I chose to make the greatest part of it afresh. . . .

Before I proceed to the account of the experiments, it will be proper to say something of the manner of observing. Suppose the arm to be at rest, and its position to be observed, let the weights then be moved, the arm will not only be drawn aside thereby, but it will be made to vibrate, and its vibrations will continue a great while; so that, in order to determine how much the arm is drawn aside, it is necessary to observe the extreme points of the vibrations, and from thence to determine the point which it would rest at if its motion was destroyed, or the point of rest, as I shall call it. To do this, I observe three successive extreme points of vibration, and take the mean between the first and third of these points, as the extreme point of vibration in one direction, and then assume the mean between this and the second extreme, as the point of rest; for, as the vibrations are continually diminishing, it is evident, that the mean between two extreme points will not give the true point of rest. . . .

It appears, therefore, that on account of the resistance of the air, the time at which the arm comes to the middle point of the vibration, is not exactly the mean between the times of its coming to the extreme points, which causes some inaccuracy in my method of finding the time of vibration. It must be observed, however, that as the time of coming to the middle point is before the middle of the vibration, both in the first and last vibration, and in general is nearly equally so, the error produced from this cause must be inconsiderable; and, on the whole, I see no method of finding the time of a vibration which is liable to less objection. . . .

In my first experiments, the wire by which the arm was suspended was

inches long, and was of copper silvered, one loot of which weighed
grains; its stiffness was such, as to make the arm perform a vibration in about 15 minutes. I immediately found, indeed, that it was not stiff enough, as the attraction of the weights drew the balls so much aside, as to make them touch the sides of the case; I, however, chose to make some experiments with it, before I changed it. . . .


From this table it appears, that though the experiments agree pretty well together, yet the difference between them, both in the quantity of motion of the arm and in the time of vibration, is greater than can proceed merely from the error of observation. As

FIG. 8.—Table published by Cavendish to show the results of his experiments to determine the density of the earth, 1798.

to the difference in the motion of the arm, it may very well be accounted for, from the current of air produced by the difference of temperature; but, whether this can account for the difference in the time of vibration, is doubtful. If the current of air was regular and of the same swiftness in all parts of the vibration of the ball, I think it could not; but, as there will most likely be much irregularity in the current. it may very likely be sufficient to account for the difference.


By a mean of the experiments made with the wire first used, the density of the earth comes out 5,48 times greater than that of water; and by a mean of those made with the latter wire, it comes out the same; and the extreme difference of the results of the 23 observations made with this wire, is only ,75; so that the extreme results do not differ from the mean by more than ,38, or

of the whole, and therefore the density should seem to be determined hereby, to great exactness. It, indeed, may be objected, that as the result appears to be influenced by the current of air, or some other cause, the laws of which we are not well acquainted with, this cause may perhaps act always, or commonly, in the same direction, and thereby make a considerable error in the result. But yet, as the experiments were tried in various weathers, and with considerable variety in the difference of temperature of the weights and air, and with the arm resting at different distances from the sides of the case, it seems very unlikely that this cause should act so uniformly in the same way, as to make the error of the mean result nearly equal to the difference between this and the extreme; and, therefore, it seems very unlikely that the density of the earth should differ from 5,48 by so much as
of the whole. . . .

According to the experiments made by Dr. MASKELYNE, on the attraction of the hill Schahillien, the density of the earth is

times that of water; which differs rather more from the preceding determination than I should have expected. But I forbear entering into any consideration of which determination is most to be depended on, till I have examined more carefully how much the preceding determination is affected by irregularities whose quantity I cannot measure.

* Mr. Coulomb has, in a variety of cases, used a contrivance of this kind for trying small attractions; but Mr. Michell informed me of his intention of making this experiment, and of the method he intended to use, before the publication of any of Mr. Coulomb’s experiments.


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Chicago: Henry Cavendish, "Experiments to Determine the Density of the Earth," A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900] in A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], ed. Kirtley F. Mather and Shirley L. Mason (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1939), 103–107. Original Sources, accessed September 23, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TEC6CT1BISVC1IL.

MLA: Cavendish, Henry. "Experiments to Determine the Density of the Earth." A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], Vol. LXXXVIII, in A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], edited by Kirtley F. Mather and Shirley L. Mason, New York, Hafner Publishing Company, 1939, pp. 103–107. Original Sources. 23 Sep. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TEC6CT1BISVC1IL.

Harvard: Cavendish, H, 'Experiments to Determine the Density of the Earth' in A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900]. cited in 1939, A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], ed. , Hafner Publishing Company, New York, pp.103–107. Original Sources, retrieved 23 September 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TEC6CT1BISVC1IL.