Planet Earth

Science and Politics: The Tale of George Washington's Swamp Gas

The LoomBy Carl ZimmerOct 17, 2008 5:40 PM


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My mother, on whom I depend for all my New Jersey history, passed on a delightful tale of George Washington, Tom Paine, and their passion for chemistry experiments. In early November 1783, Tom Paine paid a visit to George Washington in Rockingham, New Jersey, where Washington was waiting for news of the end of the revolutionary war. One night Paine and Washington got to talking with two colonels about the will-o-the-wisp, the fiery globe that people sometimes claimed to see floating over marshes. They came up with two plausible hypotheses. The colonels thought that they were produced from some kind of matter in the marches, such as turpentine. Washington and Paine thought it was a gas. So the next night, they got in a scow with some soliders and set out on the Millstone River to conduct an experiment. The soliders poked poles into the mud, and Washington and Paine held torches close. They saw bubbles rise, and then a flash of light broke out across the water. Washington and Paine were right. The gas would turn out to be methane, produced by the microbes in the mud. There will be a reenactment of that presidential hands-on science in celebration of its 225th anniversary on November 5 at dusk on the Millstone River, Rocky Hill, NJ at the junction of Routes 518 and 603. You can watch from the north side of the Rt. 518 Bridge as it crosses the Millstone River.

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