THE FATHERS OF THE SCIENCE Evangelista Torricelli (1608 – 1647)

Evangelista Torricelli

(1608 – 1647)

He was an Italian physicist and mathematician, best known for his invention of the barometer. Evangelista Torricelli was born in Faenza, then part of the Papal States. He was left fatherles at an early age and educated under the care of his uncle, a Camaldolese monk, who first entered young Torricelli into a Jesuit College in 1624 to study mathematics and philosophy until 1626, when he sent Torricelli to Rome in 1627 to study science under the Benedictine Benedetto Castelli, professor of mathematics at the Collegio della Sapienza. 

Aside from several letters, little is known of Torricelli’s activities in the years between 1632 and 1641, when Castelli sent Torricelli’s monograph of the path of projectiles to Galileo, then a prisoner in his villa at Arcetri. Although Galileo promptly invited Torricelli to visit, he did not accept until just three months before Galileo’s death. During his stay, however, he wrote out Galileo’s Discourse of the Fifth day. After Galileo’s death on January 8, 1642, Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici asked him to succeed Galileo as the grand-ducal mathematician and professor of mathematics in the University of Pisa. In this role he solved some of the great mathematical problems of the day, such as finding a cycloid’s area and center of gravity. He also designed and built a number of telescopes and simple microscopes; several large lenses, engraved with his name, are still preserved at Florence. In 1644, he famously wrote in a letter: “We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of air.”

Torricelli died in Florence a few days after having contracted typhoid fever, and was buried in San Lorenzo. The asteroid 7437 Torricelli was named in his honor.

Torricelli’s chief invention was the mercurial barometer, which arose from solving an important practical problem. Pumpmakers of the Grand Duke of Tuscany attempted to raise water to a height of 12 meters or more, but found that 10 meters was the limit to which it would rise in the suction pump. Torricelli thought to employ mercury, fourteen times as heavy as water. In 1643 he created a tube c. 1 meter long, sealed at the top end, filled it with mercury, and set it vertically into a basin of mercury. The column of mercury fell to about 76cm, leaving a Torricellian vacuum above. As we now know, the column’s height fluctuated with changing atmospheric pressure; this was the first barometer. This discovery has perpetuated his fame, and the Torr, a unit of pressure commonly used in vacuum measurements, was named in his honor. 

Torricelli also discovered Torricelli’s Law, regarding the speed of a fluid flowing out of an opening, which was later shown to be a particular case of Bernoulli’s principle. 

Torricelli gave the first scientific description of the cause of wind: … winds are produced by differences of air temperature, and hence density, between two regions of the earth.