We now arrive at one of the most curious and unexpected parts of my researches. Convinced of the general character of the phenomena I had noted, I asked myself whether chemical reactions might not generate effluves similar to those produced from substances by light, and which would still possess the common characteristic of dissipating electric charges. Experiment has fully confirmed this hypothesis.
Here was a fact hitherto absolutely unsuspected. It had long been known, since the observation goes back as far as Laplace and Lavoisier, that hydrogen prepared by the action of iron on sulfuric acid was electrified. This fact ought to have impressed physicists the more that the direct electrification of a gas is impossible. A gas left for an indefinite period in contact with a metallic plate charged with electricity never becomes electrified. If the air could be electrified it would no longer be an insulator, an electroscope could no longer keep its charge, and the majority of electrical phenomena would still be unknown to us. But this fact, so important, since it contained the proof, then concealed, that matter is not indestructible, remained totally unnoticed.
The most striking phenomena hardly attract our attention except when light is thrown upon them by other phenomena, or when some great generalization capable of explaining them forces us to examine them more closely. If, in Lavoisier’s experiments just alluded to, hydrogen was found to be electrified, it was only because the atoms of this substance had undergone the commencement of dissociation. It is curious to note that the first experiment from which it could be deduced that matter is perishable had for its author the illustrious savant whose greatest claim to glory is that of endeavoring to prove that matter is indestructible.
The experiments collected at the end of this work prove that a large number of chemical reactions, whether accompanied or unaccompanied by the disengagement of gas, produce effluves similar to the cathode rays, and therefore reveal a destruction of matter without return during the reactions.
~~Gustave Le Bon