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Petrov, Vasily Vladimirovich


(b. Oboyan, Russia, 19 July 1761; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, 15 August 1834)

physics, chemistry.

The son of a parish priest, Petrov graduated from the Kharkov Collegium in 1785 and studied at the Teacher’s Gymnasium in St. Petersburg. He taught physics, mathematics, Latin, and Russian at the mining school of Barnaul (Altay) from 1788 to 1791, then taught in St. Petersburg at the Izmaylov Cadets School (1791–1797) and the Main Medical School. In 1795 Petrov became extraordinary professor and, in 1800, professor at the Medical-Surgical Academy. There he created a first-class cabinet de physique and at the beginning of the nineteenth century did basic research in physical chemistry, electrostatics, and galvanism.

From 1802 Petrov was corresponding member, from 1809 extraordinary, and from 1815 ordinary academician of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. He was elected honorary member of the Erlangen Physics-Medical Society (1810) and the University of Vilna (1829).

Petrov was an active follower of Lavoisier not only in the promotion and application of the oxygen theory of combustion but also in the treatment of heat and light as chemical elements, in which he included electrical and galvanic fluids.

In Sobranie fiziko-khimicheskikh novykh opytov i nablyudeny “ (“Collection of New Physical-Chemical Experiments and Observations,” 1801) and in a series of articles later published in Umozritelnye issledovania Sankt-Peterburgskoy Akademu nauk (“Speculative Research of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences”) Petrov described his experiments on the possibility of burning organic and inorganic substances in a vacuum and in some gases that do not sustain combustion (carbon dioxide gas, hydrogen chloride, sulfur dioxide). He showed that even in the absence of air, substances containing oxygen can burn, whereas the transformation of metals into oxides is impossible.

Petrov also examined various forms of phosphorescence from the viewpoint of the oxygen theory of combustion, showing that luminescence of rotten wood can occur only in the presence of oxygen and is a “very slow form of combustion.” By demonstrating that the phosphorescence of minerals does not depend on the presence of oxygen, he distinguished photoluminescence from chemiluminescence. He also investigated the relationship of the luminescence of crystal phosphorus to temperature.

In Izvestie o galvani-voltovskikh opytakh (“News of Galvanic-Voltaic Experiments,” 1803) Petrov described experiments carried out in the spring of 1802 with a battery of 2,100 copper-zinc elements. He also related its structure and principles of operation–the use of sealing wax and wax to insulate the wires, chemical indicators for observing the oxidation-reduction processes at the electrodes, and methods for eliminating oxidization on the surfaces of the metal disks. Of great importance is the description of the stable arc discharge and the indication of its possible use in artificial lighting, melting metals, obtaining pure metallic oxides, and reduction of metals from oxides mixed with powdered carbon and oils.

Petrov observed discharges at low pressures and in particular described a decomposing discharge. He investigated the relation of electrolysis of various substances to temperature and electromotive force, and used parallel tubes filled with electrolytes to observe the relation of the current to the cross section of the conductor.

In Novye elektricheskie opyty (“New Electrical Experiments,” 1804) Petrov described experiments that showed the possibility of electrifying metals by friction. He used the bell glass of an air pump for studying electrostatic discharges in a vacuum, in hydrogen, in nitrogen, and in carbon dioxide.

After his election to the Academy of Sciences, Petrov made meteorological observations in St. Petersburg and also processed the observations sent from other Russian cities. He conducted a special study of the relation of velocity of vaporization of ice and snow to atmospheric pressure, temperature, and wind force.

The decline in Petrov’s scientific activity during the last twenty-five years of his life was caused by financial difficulties related to the War of 1812 and later by his impaired health.


Petrov’s “Izvestie o galvani-voltovskikh opytakh” (“ News of Galvanic-Voltaic Experiments,”) was reprinted in Sbornik k stoletiyu so dnya smerti pervogo russkogo electrotekhnika akademika Vasilia Vladimirovicha Petrova (“Collection on the Centenary of the Death of the First Russian Electrotechnician Academician Vasily Vladimirovich Petrov” Moscow-Leningrad, 1936), i–Viii, 1–194.

There is an annotated bibliography of his works in S. I. Vavilov, ed., K istorii fiziki i khimii v Rossii v nachale XIX v. (“Toward a History of Physics and Chemistry in Russia at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century” Moscow-Leningrad, 1940), 193–210. Other works on Petrov’s life and work are A. A. Eliseev, Vasily Vladimirovich Petrov (Moscow-Leningrad, 1949), with bibliography on pp. 172–179; O. A. Lezhneva, “Die Entwicklung der Physik in Russland in der ersten Halfte des 19. Jahrhunderts,” in Beitrage zur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften (1960), 2203–225; and Y. A. Shneyberg, “O bataree V. V. Petrova i ego opytakh s elektrichekoy dugoy i razryadom v vakuume” (“ On Petrov’s Battery and His Experiments With the Electric Arc and Discharge in a Vacuum “), in Elektrichestvo, no. 11 (1953), 72–75.

Olga A. Lezhneva

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