Sustainability Blog

Footnote: Foote’s Footprint!

By Apurva Gosalia - Feb 18, 2022

I sincerely believe that at some point in life, every person asks themselves, “What kind of footprint will I leave behind once I am gone?” Well, we will certainly all leave behind a carbon footprint, which is the measure of the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by our activities over a particular period. 

Human activities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1750 – burning fossil fuels, clearcutting forests and industrial livestock farming – have emitted tons of CO2 disproportionately into the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse effect by almost 50% and in this way causing global warming.

Who was actually the first person ever to chart the physics of climate change and when did that happen?

Eunice Newton Foote, scientist, inventor and women’s rights activist, first publicly presented CO2 as a climate gas on Aug. 23, 1856. She was the first to describe the extraordinary power of CO2 to absorb heat – the driving force behind global warming – and hypothesized that if the Earth’s air filled with more CO2, the planet’s temperature would rise. Thus, the she was the first to recognize that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

For a long time Foote and her contributions were forgotten. Her rightful place in scientific history and credit for her work were taken by male colleagues. It was only by chance that the seminal paper Foote published in 1856 was rediscovered in 2010. Since then, science historians have been trying to reconstruct Foote’s life, which is barely known.

Foote was born in Connecticut in 1819. She was allowed to attend a women’s seminary in Troy, New York, from 1836 to 1838. This boarding school was the only school in the U.S. at the time that taught girls mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, geography and history. In 1841, she married patent attorney and judge Elisha Foote, who was also a scientist and mathematician. 

Foote’s 1856 essay is only two pages long and is called: “Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays.”

Succinctly, Foote described her experimental setup: One glass flask filled with normal air and a second filled with only CO2.

She placed both vessels in the sun and waited to see what happened. Two thermometers were placed in each flask to rule out measurement errors. After a short time, the normal air had heated up to 100 Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius), while the temperature of the CO2 had climbed to 120 F (49 C).

Foote concluded quite correctly that the more CO2 the Earth’s atmosphere contained, the hotter it must be. The greenhouse effect had been discovered. However, it was still inconceivable to Foote that mankind could affect the atmosphere. There was neither gasoline nor automobiles at the time.

Foote died in 1888 and was buried in Brooklyn, New York at the cemetery of Green-Wood (what a coincidence!).

Foote’s scientific contributions were immediately forgotten, and it wasn’t until 2010 that retired oil geologist Ray Sorenson accidentally came across Foote’s writings.

The world has known about the warming risk posed by excessive levels of CO2 for decades, even before the invention of cars or coal-fired power stations. A rare female scientist in her time, Foote, explicitly warned us about the basic science 165 years ago. Why haven’t we listened more closely?

Beyond this pivotal discovery, Foote’s life was one of robust intellectual ambition and exploration, and she leaves behind a considerable archival “Foote-print.”


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