A Brief History of Vacuum Technology

A Brief History of Vacuum Technology

The idea of vacuum and how to measure it might seem odd to someone that hasn’t given it some real thought. However, the idea of vacuum and how we interact with it has been around for much longer than you might think. You can actually trace the roots of the idea all the way back to around the time of Aristotle. How we use vacuum technology today is a direct result of some very wise people being curious about our universe and how it operates. At DigiVac, we pride ourselves on being curious; it’s one of our core values. Since we love to simplify science, let’s dig into a brief history of vacuum technology so you can see the long road it took to get to where we are today.

Humble Origins

The first place we can start is with the word itself. Vacuum can seem like a strange word when you consider its spelling and pronunciation, but that’s because it finds its roots in the Latin language. The word “vacuus” is the Latin word for “empty”. This was later extrapolated to the word vacuum, the definition of which is “a space devoid of matter,” in other words, a completely empty space.

The idea that there might be “empty” space is first attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus. Somewhere in his lifespan, between the years of 460 and 376 BCE, he proposed the idea that every single thing in our world was comprised of tiny, indivisible particles. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it should! This is thought to also be the first record of atomic theory, as Democritus dubbed these small particles “atomos.” This is obviously where we get the idea of atoms from, but his theory would take many, many years before it was eventually proven correct.

Democritus also proposed that in between these small particles was absolutely nothing, a space devoid of all matter. This is believed to be the first introduction to the idea of a perfect vacuum, which spoiler alert doesn’t exist (at least not on earth).

Aristotle Disagrees

Another very well-renowned philosopher of Democritus’ time was one Aristotle, who very much disagreed with Democritus’ ideas of a space with no matter in it. Aristotle may have been incredibly smart for his time, but he was anything but perfect. He believed that all matter was made up of the four essential elements—water, earth, fire, and air. Given that he thought everything was made of some combination of these elements, he didn’t believe there was any room for vacuum to exist.

Aristotle’s argument against the existence of vacuum carried on for a very long time—all the way through the 15th century in fact. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Nature abhors a vacuum”? This was a commonly used phrase to defend Aristotle’s position on the existence of vacuum. Another hiccup to the story of vacuum is that the Catholic church also believed in Aristotle’s version and thus considered any other idea on the subject to be heresy. It was a very bad time to disagree with the Catholic church back then.

One such scientist dared to, however. Born in Italy in 1548, Giordano Bruno agreed with Democritus’ idea of vacuum and made it known to the public as well. This, unfortunately, cost him his life in the year 1600. A Roman inquisition found and proclaimed Giordano Bruno a heretic and burned him at the stake.

How Vacuum Theory Really Got Started

There was no way to run from cold hard science, even with the strong opposition to the idea of vacuum from many different people in both the scientific community and the philosophical community. This heated debate continued for over a century, until a well-respected scientist named Galileo Galilei made a few discoveries of his own. Galileo is thought of fondly for many reasons, and in our case it’s because he was the first scientist to prove that air had both weight and density. And who can forget his cameo in Bohemian Rhapsody?

Why was this so important? What does air having weight and density have to do with vacuum and its technology? This was important to understand because Galileo also postulated that if air had weight and density, it would be possible to remove it from a given space, thus creating a vacuum.

The first experiment on record of producing a vacuum is attributed to the work of Gasparo Berti. Around 1641, it is believed that Gasparo Berti created a vacuum using bells, pipes, and water. This experiment was not enough to confirm that a vacuum had been created; however, that honor would go to a different scientist.

The True Vacuum Experiment

One of Galileo’s students, Evangelista Torricelli was called by some well diggers to fix a problem. They could only pump water up to a maximum of ten meters before it separated from the plunger in the pump. Torricelli believed that the gap created by the plunger was, in fact, a vacuum.

Torricelli set about recreating this idea in a lab setting. Using a glass tube and liquid mercury, Torricelli was able to prove the existence of a vacuum when he overturned the tube full of mercury into a bowl of mercury. He hypothesized that the space above the mercury in the tube was actually a vacuum. This was the first time a vacuum has been successfully created in a laboratory setting and the experiment is now known as the Torricelli experiment. Torricelli is where the vacuum measurement unit Torr comes from!

Many other scientists built on this experiment as the years went on. They found the existence of air pressure and how it affected the vacuum created. Other scientists like Otto von Guericke created vacuums in differently shaped containers and at different sizes. By the time the 18th century rolled around, no one could believe in Aristotle’s theories about vacuum anymore. The work by Guericke is why it is important to understand the size of the chamber to predict the size of vacuum pump or vacuum pressure controller you need.

Vacuum technology has grown so much since Democritus thought up the original idea a millennia ago. This brief history of vacuum technology is just that, brief. There are so many more things we can learn about vacuum technology by examining the works of those who came before us and believed in the power of science and data.

If you’re in the market for a high-accuracy vacuum gauge, DigiVac has you covered. We believe in our products in the same way that Democritus believed in vacuum all those years ago. We’ll be glad to help you figure out your needs when it comes to our vacuum technology.