History of chemistry

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The history of chemistry represents a time span from ancient history to the present.


    Marie Curie
prior to 1907
  • We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity.
    • Marie Curie, Lecture at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York (May 14, 1921)
  • By convention (νόμῳ) sweet is sweet, by convention bitter is bitter, by convention hot is hot, by convention cold is cold, by convention color is color. But in reality there are atoms and the void. That is, the objects of sense are supposed to be real and it is customary to regard them as such, but in truth they are not. Only the atoms and the void are real.
    • Democritus, Fragments (c. 420 B.C.) from Sextus Empiricus (c. 200 AD) Adversus Mathematicos (Against the Mathematicians) VII, 135. As quoted in The Source Book in Ancient Philosophy (1909) Tr. Charles Montague Bakewell, p. 60.
  • Even though Mendeleev always denied that electrons exist, they later turned out to be vital for ordering the elements in his table.
  • I need only remind you of Davy's great researches: nitrous oxide; electric conduction and decomposition—resulting, on the one hand, in the separation of potassium and sodium, the decomposition of the earths following as a necessary consequence, and on the other in the electro-chemical theory; iodine and chlorine—resulting in the extension and confirmation of the word element, the discovery of the so-called hydrogen acids, and the important modification of the French theory of the constitution of acids; the investigation of gaseous explosion and of flame, and the invention of the safety lamp. These are the contributions to science which stand out more prominently in connection with Davy. But over and above all this is the peculiar manner of his discoveries. He was no patient plodder. He did not elaborate his work in minute detail. He dashed it off in broad masses; but just on that account there has never been anyone to follow up his investigations. Davy's mantle fell on no one, not even on Faraday.
  • The laws of thermodynamics, as empirically determined, express the approximate and probable behavior of systems of a great number of particles, or, more precisely, they express the laws of mechanics for such systems as they appear to beings who have not the fineness of perception to enable them to appreciate quantities of the order of magnitude of those which relate to single particles, and who cannot repeat their experiments often enough to obtain any but the most probable results.
  • We avoid the gravest difficulties when, giving up the attempt to frame hypotheses concerning the constitution of matter, we pursue statistical inquiries as a branch of rational mechanics.
  • The distinction would only come to Mendeleev halfway through writing his Principles of Chemistry. ...chemical practice and not chemical theory had provided his initial organizing principle... Up to this point [Chapter 20], Mendeleev had only treated four elements in any detail: oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen—the so-called "organogens." Mendeleev began this chapter as usual by purifying the central substance, sodium chloride, from sources such as seawater. A discussion of sodium and chlorine followed in the next few chapters, and finally the halogens appeared... that were closely related to chlorine... and the alkali metals (the sodium family) form the first chapter of volume 2. ...he had dealt with only 8 elements, relegating 55... to the second volume. ...Mendeleev's earlier system of pedalogically useful organization—using laboratory practices... could no longer sustain the burden of exposition. He needed a new system... and he hit upon the idea of using a numerical marker for each element. Atomic weight seemed the most likely candidate for a system that would (a) account for all remaining elements; (b) do so in limited space; and (c) maintain some pedagogical merit. His solution, the periodic system, remains one of the most useful tools in chemistry.
    • Michael D. Gordin, A Well-Ordered Thing: Dimitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table (2004)
  • In 1774 he thought he had obtained nitrous oxide... in 1775 he saw the gas as dephlogisticated air... If we refuse the palm to Priestley, we cannot award it to Lavoisier for the work of 1775... Lavoisier insisted that oxygen was an atomic "principle of acidity"... formed only when that "principle" united with "caloric"... Ignoring Scheele, we can safely say that oxygen had not been discovered before 1774, and we would probably say that it had been discovered by 1777 or shortly thereafter. But... any attempt to date the discovery must inevitably be arbitrary because discovering a new sort of phenomenon is necessarily a complex event, one which involves recognizing both that something is and what it is.
  • We may lay it down as an incontestible axiom, that, in all the operations of art and nature, nothing is created; an equal quantity of matter exists both before and after the experiment; the quality and quantity of the elements remain precisely the same; and nothing takes place beyond changes and modifications in the combination of these elements. Upon this principle the whole art of performing chemical experiments depends: We must always suppose an exact equality between the elements of the body examined and those of the products of its analysis.
  • In writing a textbook of general chemistry, Mendeleev devoted separate chapters to families of elements with similar properties, including the alkali metals, the alkaline earth metals, and the halogens. Reflecting on the properties of these and other elements, he proposed in 1869 a primitive version of today's periodic table. Indeed, he predicted detailed properties for three such elements (scandium, gallium, and germanium). By 1886 all of these elements had been discovered and found to have properties very similar to those he had predicted.
    • William Masterton, Cecile Hurley, Chemistry: Principles and Reactions (2008)
  • The law of conservation of mass was first put into definite form by Lavoisier, in the eighties of the eighteenth century. In considering the fermentation of fruit-juices, wherein carbonic acid gas and alcohol are produced, Lavoisier said:—"We must evidently have a complete knowledge of the analyses and the nature of the substances which can be fermented; for nothing is created, either in the operations of art, or in those of nature, and it may be laid down as a principle that, in every operation there is an equal quantity of matter before and after the operation; ...there is nothing but certain changes, certain modifications. The whole art of experimenting in chemistry rests on this principle; in all experiments one is obliged to assume an actual equality between the principles [that is, elements] of the substances examined and those obtained by the analysis of these substances. Thus, inasmuch as grape-juice yields carbonic acid gas and alcohol, I can affirm that grape juice=carbonic acid gas+alcohol."
  • The extension of Black's method by the physicist Lavoisier led to the downfall of the purely qualitative theory of phlogiston, and gave to chemistry the true methods of investigation, and its first great quantitative law—the law of conservation of matter.
  • On the one hand, the student has been informed by some writers that the only certain way lies in the use of the entropy-function and the thermodynamic potentials; on the other hand, he is told with equal authority that the method used by the original investigators has been the consideration of cyclic processes, and that the former method is nothing but a mathematical (perhaps unnecessary) refinement of the results obtained by the latter. These extreme attitudes appear to me to be unfortunate, and more especially when one observes the physical clearness introduced by the use of cyclic processes, but at the same time remembers that most of the results obtained by separate investigators using cyclic processes had, with a great many more, previously been found by J. Willard Gibbs by means of a purely analytical method.
    • J. R. Partington, A Text-Book of Thermodynamics with Special Reference to Chemistry (1913)
Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, Plate I, facing Vol.1 title page
  • Dimitri was writing a textbook and wanted to organize the elements properly. So he wrote each element onto its own card to help him sort them out. Dimitri enjoyed playing cards, especially patience, and one evening he dosed off while working. He had a dream in which each of the cards lined up in rows, just like a game of patience. When he woke, he realized that he should put the elements in order of atomic mass.
    • David Sang, Lawrie Ryan, Jane Taylor, Scientifica: Raiders of the Lost Quadrat (2005)
  • I have... hinted at the probability that Boyle himself was involved only in a very limited way in 'his' experimental manipulations. The device which became known as the machina Boyleana [air pump] was almost certainly constructed for him by remunerated assistants Ralph Greatorex and Robert Hooke, and even the extent of Boyle's rule in its evolving design remains unclear. The glass J-shaped tube that yielded his law of pressures and volumes was again almost certainly made for him and had to be manipulated by him in collaboration with assistants, if not solely by them. The furnaces in his laboratory, and the alembics in which long-term distillations were performed, were probably tended by assistants.
    • Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (1994)
Tribikos (3-tubed still), Fig. 11, A History of Chemistry from the Earliest Times (1920) by James Campbell Brown.
  • The emphasis on the role of 'spirits' in chemical processes helps to explain why the alchemists placed so much importance on distillation. For, by distillation, one could drive off the 'spiritual' part of a body and collect it separately in a pure form. In this way the ancient techniques of the perfumiers acquired a new theoretical significance. The oils and perfumes driven off when rose-petals were boiled in a closed vessel appeared to to embody the very soul (or essence or attar) of the original plant. This is in fact how phrases like 'essential oils' and 'vanilla essence' originated.
  • [M]etals remained the alchemists' chief concern... they seemed in their own way alive, whereas the calces (oxides) from which they were manufactured crumbled to dust and looked like cinders. Theory at once suggested a natural analogy. The metal was formed from the calx by the incorporation of pneuma or spirit; and this theory of metal-formation long remained in favour, being revived around 1700 as the 'phlogiston' theory. The central problem about metals was to identify the volitile constituents which combined with the calces to form the finished metal. For a long time, the status of quicksilver was ambiguous... resembling much more the volitile reagents which corrode metallic surfaces: mercury, in fact, forms an amalgam with other metals, and is even capable of dissolving gold... So the Alchemy of Avicenna classed mercury as a 'spirit' rather than a 'body'...

A Short History of Chemistry (1894)[edit]

by Francis Preston Venable, source
  • This History has been written because of a conviction, from my own experience and experience with my students, that one of the best aids to an intelligent comprehension of the science of chemistry is the study of the long struggle, the failures, and the triumphs of the men who have made this science for us.
    • Preface
  • Free use has been made of all the chief authorities; the historical works of Kopp, Berthelot, Hoefer, Thomson, Ernst v. Meyer, Ladenburg, Rodwell, Muir, Wurtz, Hartmann, Gmelin, Karmarsch, and Siebert, besides the original works of nearly all the chemists mentioned for the past century and a half, have been consulted.
    • Preface
  • The ovum from which chemistry has been slowly evolved seems to have been sorcery and magic.
  • The word χημεία occurs first in the writings of Suidas, a Greek lexicographer of the eleventh century. It is there defined as the "preparing of gold and silver." This is manifestly a Greek rendering of the name Chema or Chemi, which is of Egyptian origin, and all attempts at deriving it from χεω, to fuse, or χνμα a liquid, are without import.
  • Plutarch tells us that Chemia was a name given Egypt on account of the black soil, and that this term further meant the black of the eye, symbolizing that which was obscure and hidden.
  • The Coptic word khems or chems is closely related to this, and also signifies obscure, occult, and with this is connected the Arabic word chema, to hide.
  • It is therefore the occult or hidden science, the black art.
  • Two difficulties meet one in studying the early history of the science. One is... mysticism... and the other is the custom among the early writers of ascribing their discoveries, books, etc., to fabulous names or ancient heroes and gods. This latter had two objects, the first being to shield the true author in time of persecution, and the second to gain a certain amount of credit and reputation... by the use of the names of such celebrities as Moses, Solomon, Alexander, or Cleopatra. This tendency is especially noticeable among the writers of the Middle Ages, and also the early Greek authors, and is not peculiar to authors of alchemical treatises.
  • No original manuscript of the earliest writers on chemistry or alchemy has been discovered. Our knowledge must be gleaned from the pages of those writing upon other subjects, or must come from fragments handed down to us through several copyists.
  • The reason generally assigned for this absence of early records is that Diocletian burned all writings of the Egyptians bearing upon alchemy, because, as he said, these taught the art of making gold and silver; and, by destroying them, he took away from the Egyptians the power of enriching themselves and rebelling against the Romans.
  • [T]he Chinese... had... knowledge of metals, alloys, colors, and salts for a long time, and that they manufactured gun powder and porcelain before they were known in Europe.
  • In... India... knowledge of the extraction of metals, the making of steel, the preparation of colors, and similar technical operations, dates back to the most remote antiquity. They also theorized as to the elements and their number. Their synonym for death was, "man returns to the five elements."
  • The almost universal tradition among alchemists is that their art was first cultivated among the Egyptians, and that Hermes Trismegistus, the Egyptian god of arts and sciences, was its founder. The finding of papyri of a chemical nature in the tombs... lead us to give credence to this tradition... Clement of Alexandria tells us that the knowledge... was restricted to the priests, who were forbidden to communicate it... Plutarch also mentions the strict secrecy observed, and the cloaking... under the guise of fables.
  • [T]here is a similarity easily detected between the hieroglyphics and the alchemical signs. The phraseology in the early treatises is similar to that in the priestly writings.
  • [N]ote the important part played by the number four with the alchemists as well as with the Egyptian priests. There are the four bases or elements, the tetrasomy of Zosimus; the four zones, four funeral deities, four cardinal points, four winds, four colors, etc.
  • The Chaldeans, as masters of occult sciences, played an important part at Rome. In much earlier times, the Bible mentions them as the depositaries of all wisdom and science... They were rivals of the Egyptians in knowledge, and were especially famous as astrologers. Many industrial arts were brought to as high perfection in Babylon as in Egypt; for instance, the processes of glass-making, of dyeing, and of working in metals. Those Chaldeans who settled in Rome in later years came from Syria and Mesopotamia. Tacitus makes mention of them. They were much sought after by the fashionable as the representatives of Eastern religions and mystic doctrines.
  • Ostanes, the Mede, was one of the celebrated early alchemists. Several writers have recorded for us the existence of a book called The Book of the Divine Prescriptions, which seems to have been the most famous writing of these Persian sages.
  • The belief in some wonderful connection between planets and metals is due to these Chaldeans. The signs of the heavenly bodies became the symbols for the metals. These planets influenced a supposed growth of the metals, and were esteemed all-powerful in regulating human life and fate. Many of these notions are to be attributed to the Alexandrian epoch.

The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry (1902)[edit]

M. M. Pattison Muir, source
  • Observations of the changes which are constantly happening in the sky, and on the earth, must have prompted men long ago to ask whether there are any limits to the changes of things around them. And this question must have become more urgent as working in metals, making colours and dyes, preparing new kinds of food and drink, producing substances with smells and tastes unlike those of familiar objects, and other pursuits like these, made men acquainted with transformations which seemed to penetrate to the very foundations of things.
  • Some of the Greek philosophers who lived four or five hundred years before Christ formed a theory of the transformations of matter, which is essentially the theory held by naturalists to-day. ...Those investigators attempted to connect all the differences which are observed between the qualities of things with differences of size, shape, position, and movement of atoms... unchangeable, indestructible, and impenetrable particles ...not one of them can be destroyed, nor can one be created; when a substance ceases to exist and another is formed, the process is not a destruction of matter, it is a re-arrangement of atoms.
  • We now know that many compounds exist which are formed by the union of the same quantities by weight of the same elements, and, nevertheless, differ in properties; modern chemistry explains this fact by saying that the properties of a substance depend, not only on the kind of atoms which compose the minute particles of a compound, and the number of atoms of each kind, but also on the mode of arrangement of the atoms. The same doctrine was taught by Lucretius, two thousand years ago. " It often makes a great difference," he said, " with what things, and in what positions the same first beginnings are held in union, and what motions they mutually impart and receive."
  • Lucretius pictured a solid substance as a vast number of atoms squeezed closely together, a liquid as composed of not so many atoms less tightly packed, and a gas as a comparatively small number of atoms with considerable freedom of motion. Essentially the same picture is presented by the molecular theory of to-day.
  • Another objector urges—"You say the atoms are always moving, yet the things we look at, which you assert to be vast numbers of moving atoms, are often motionless." ...Lucretius answers by an analogy. " And herein you need not wonder at this, that... since they are themselves beyond what you can see, they must withdraw from sight their motion as well; and the more so, that the things which we can see do yet often conceal their motions when a great distance off."
  • More than two thousand years passed before investigators began to make accurate measurements of the quantities of the substances which take part in those changes wherein certain things seem to be destroyed and other totally different things to be produced; until accurate knowledge had been obtained of the quantities of the definite substances which interact in the transformations of matter, the atomic theory could not do more than draw the outlines of a picture of material changes.
    A scientific theory has been described as "the likening of our imaginings to what we actually observe." So long as we observe only in the rough, only in a broad and general way, our imaginings must also be rough, broad, and general.
  • The atomic theory was used by the great physicists of the later Renaissance, by Galileo, Gassendi, Newton and others. ... John Dalton, while trying ...to form a mental presentation of the atmosphere in terms of the theory of atoms, rediscovered the possibility of differences between the sizes of atoms, applied this idea to the facts concerning the quantitative compositions of compounds which had been established by others, developed a method for determining the relative weights of atoms of different kinds, and started chemistry on the course which it has followed so successfully.

A History of Chemistry from the Earliest Times (1920)[edit]

by James Campbell Brown, second edition, source
Fig. 1. A History of Chemistry from the Earliest Times
Fig. 2. A History of Chemistry from the Earliest Times
  • [M]any chemical facts, products, and processes have been known from a period considerably earlier than any of which we have a historic record. As a true science... chemistry is only between one and two hundred years old... but... it has been known and practised as an art continuously since prehistoric times. The skilled, and often royal or priestly, artisans handed down its secrets in the shape of workshop traditions, from the earliest ages till the present day...
  • The origin of the science of chemistry must... be sought in the art of alchemy. ...[I]n the course of their labours they gained much definite information regarding the properties of metals and other substances, devised the necessary apparatus and processes for chemical operations, and laid a foundation upon which later investigators have built up the modern science.
  • [T]he Alchemical Period... may with propriety be called "The Ancient History of Chemistry."
  • The application of the term [alchemy] has frequently but wrongfully been restricted to the pretended arts of making gold and silver, and the more profitable arts of adulterating and of imitating gold. It had, however, a wider application, and ought to be regarded as including all the arts known in ancient times which dealt with things now comprehended in the science of chemistry.
  • The use of the expression "chemist" to indicate a druggist reminds us of another branch of alchemy, the art of making drugs which received much attention in Ancient Egypt, and probably in other eastern countries, and was combined with the art of preparing poisons and their antidotes.
  • The ancient Egyptians... had a profound knowledge of the art of making, tinting, and working glass.
  • The arts and industries of dyeing, painting, and staining were known and practised in eastern lands in very ancient times. ...[T]he dyeing of skins and garments... is mentioned in most writings of antiquity. The colours used in early Egyptian art remain bright and clear. ...Remains found in Chaldea include coloured articles, as well as articles made of metal.
  • We are apt to suppose that the use of antiseptics is of modern origin, but that is not so. Not only did the Hebrews and the Greeks employ antiseptics in their religious rites, but in Egypt a very high degree of skill must have been attained in their preparation and use, before the body of King Rameses... and hundreds of others could have been preserved for between three and four thousand years so perfectly...
  • The development of the paraffin and other hydrocarbon industries during the present generation may make us fancy that this is a modern discovery; but it is the fact that the fire on the Hebrew altar fed by the Jewish priests was our familiar petroleum and was called naphthar or nephi, a Hebrew word signifying purification...
  • [T]he first period [prehistory to 500 B.C.] into which the history of chemistry naturally divides itself is that during which a number of chemical facts were known, but not understood or explained. These facts were not correlated, nor was the subject studied with scientific purpose and method, consequently during this period chemistry was not a science.
  • The Greeks were no chemists. The bent of their mind was not towards natural science; few observations or experiments were made by them, and they preferred to argue from general principles to particulars, rather than from particular observations to general principles.
  • Davy held that if the battery is strong enough any compound may be decomposed, and that chemical affinity is merely a form of electric attraction. He vigorously put his theory into practice...
  • Berthollet's conclusion that chlorine is oxymuriatic acid was universally accepted until Gay-Lussac and Thénard in 1809 endeavoured to decompose the gas and failed. They concluded that it contained water because it yielded water when passed over litharge. Their researches read to the Institute in 1809 led Davy to investigate muriatic acid (hydrochloric acid) gas, which in 1808 he had shown to be decomposed by potassium, with evolution of hydrogen. In 1810 he proved that chlorine is an element, and that muriatic acid gas is a compound of chlorine and hydrogen. He thus overturned the oxygen-acid theory, and demonstrated that muriates are compounds of metals with chlorine. He pointed to the fact that some acids, such as sulphuretted hydrogen, contain no oxygen, and argued that muriatic acid gas was one of these, chlorine in it taking the place of oxygen. ...The conclusions of Davy were at first doubted, but when iodine and bromine were also discovered, Gay-Lussac and his followers adopted Davy's views. The latter worked out fluorine, and proved that hydrofluoric acid (HF) contains no oxygen. Berzelius also opposed Davy until the discovery of iodine, but embraced the latter's opinion in 1820.

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