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The Vacuum

The idea of "empty space" is an important notion in 20th-century art. Among the different possible representations of emptiness, the vacuum stands out as the only literally adequate one.

Performance pieces involving material emptiness flourished in the 17th century, when the physical reality of the vacuum was first discovered. This discovery was a shocking one, because in the Aristotelean order of things, empty space was intrinsically impossible. The mediæval cliché was "Natura abhorret vacuum" [Rabelais, 1532]. (In present-day English: "The vacuum sucks".)

Gasparo Berti, 1641
Vincenzio Viviani &
Evangelista Torricelli, 1644

First sustained vacuum, created by means of an 11 m. high column of water. Demo in Rome, for an invited audience which included Raffaelo Magiotti, Athanasius Kircher and Nicolo Zucchi.
[Cf. Magiotti 1648; Schott 1664.]

Vacuum by means of a mercury column. Florence, 1644.
[Cf. Torricelli 1644; Middleton 1964, pp. 23-30.]

Blaise Pascal, 1647

Public experiment in the Rouen glass factory, comparing water and wine in equilibrium with atmospheric pressure [Westfall 1977, p. 45].

Pascal also performed two new experiments that were important in establishing empirical evidence for the possibility of a vacuum and for the reality of atmospheric pressure:

(1) "Le vide dans le vide" (a Torricelli column within the vacuum of a Torriceli column).

(2) Employing the Torricelli column to measure differences in atmospheric pressures at differents heights on the Puy de Dôme. (In 1648, collaborating with his brother-in-law Périer.)

[Cf. Dijksterhuis, 1950, Part IV, § 261-277 (pp. 488-499).]


E.J. Dijksterhuis: De Mechanisering van het Wereldbeeld. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1950.

Raffaello Magiotti: Letter to Marin Mersenne. March, 1648.

W.E.K. Middleton: The History of the Barometer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964.

Gaspar Schott: Technica curiosa, sive, Mirabilia artis. Würzburg 1664.

François Rabelais: La vie très horrificque du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel, 1532. (Ch. V, "Les propos des bien yvres.")

Evangelista Torricelli: Letter to Michelangelo Ricci concerning the Barometer, June 11, 1644. In: Collected Works Vol. III (1919). Also in: William Francis Magie: A Source Book in Physics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935).

Richard S. Westfall: The Construction of Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Otto von Guericke, 1654

Public demonstrations with the "Magdeburger Halbkugeln" in various locations in Germany (1654-1663).

Two copper bowls would be joined to form a hollow sphere. After the air was removed from this sphere, two teams of horses were hitched to pull on the two bowls in order to separate them – which they would fail to do. When air was again allowed into the sphere, the bowls would come apart by themselves.

"Finally, the eights were hooked and, as 16 horses pulled against each other, the hemispheres held and again Guericke's theory proved true. The audience was impressed; most of them believed the draft horses would be able to separate the hemispheres."

[Deb Pierce: "The Magdeburg Hemispheres." The Draft Horse Journal, Summer 2004.]

Re-enactment of Von Guericke's performance (April 25, 2004, Ulman, Missouri).

Robert Boyle, 1660: No sound

Robert Boyle demonstrated that the vacuum does not transmit sounds. A bell which rings in a vacuum cannot be heard.


This line of research constitutes the background of Blaise Pascal's famous dictum: "Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie".

Three ideas that were new at this time come together in Pascal's formulation: (1) that cosmic space is boundless; (2) that the space between the stars is literally empty; (3) that sound cannot be transmitted in a vacuum. The music of the spheres is thus replaced by a deafening silence. (As mentioned above, Pascal was an active participant in the early research concerning the vacuum.)


Robert Boyle: New Experiments PhysicoMechanical touching the spring of air and its effects. Oxford, 1660.
Jean-Charles Darmon: "L'imagination de l'espace entre argumentation philosophique et fiction. De Gassendi à Cyrano." Études Littéraires, 34, 1-2 (Winter 2002).
Alexandre Koyré: Du monde clos à l'univers infini. Paris: Gallimard, 1973.
Richard S. Westfall: The Construction of Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Robert Boyle, 1660:
The vacuum kills.

Robert Boyle also investigated whether small animals survive in a vacuum, with very clear negative results.

Boyle's experiment became part of the standard repertoire of the eighteenth-century "travelling scientists". A home theatre performance of this sort is shown on this famous picture by Joseph Wright of Derby ("An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump", 1768).

David R. Scott, 1971

In a live TV broadcast from the moon on August 2, 1971, the astronaut David R Scott duplicated another of Robert Boyle's 1660 experiments. A hammer and a feather were dropped simultaneously onto the lunar surface, and they were observed to hit the ground at the same moment.

Ewerdt Hilgemann, 1994

Hilgemann creates "imploded" sculptural shapes by removing the air from simple geometric hollow constructions. By pointing to an absent vacuum, these shapes constitute unusually sharp representations of "nothing".

Imploded Pyramid, 1994

Imploded Volume, 1997-1999

Imploded Column, 2002

Remko Scha – December 18, 2005