The beginnings of Chemistry IV

Antoine Lavoisier, the Father of Chemistry

Although the archives of chemical research draw upon work from ancient Babylon, Egypt, and especially Persia after Islam, modern chemistry flourished from the time of Antoine Lavoisier’s discovery of the law of conservation of mass, and his refutation of the phlogiston theory of combustion in 1783. (Phlogiston was supposed to be an imponderable substance liberated by flammable materials in burning.) Mikhail Lomonosov independently established a tradition of chemistry in Russia in the 18th century. Lomonosov also rejected the phlogiston theory, and anticipated the kinetic theory of gases. He regarded heat as a form of motion, and stated the idea of conservation of matter.

The vitalism debate and organic chemistry

After the nature of combustion (see oxygen) was settled, another dispute, about vitalism and the essential distinction between organic and inorganic substances, was revolutionized by Friedrich W√∂hler’s accidental synthesis of urea from inorganic substances in 1828. Never before had an organic compound been synthesized from inorganic material. This opened a new research field in chemistry, and by the end of the 19th century, scientists were able to synthesize hundreds of organic compounds. The most important among them are mauve, magenta, and other synthetic dyes, as well as the widely used drug aspirin. The discovery also contributed greatly to the theory of isomerism.

Disputes about atomism after Lavoisier

Throughout the 19th century, chemistry was divided between those who followed the atomic theory of John Dalton and those who did not, such as Wilhelm Ostwald and Ernst Mach. Although such proponents of the atomic theory as Amedeo Avogadro and Ludwig Boltzmann made great advances in explaining the behavior of gases, this dispute was not finally settled until Jean Perrin’s experimental investigation of Einstein’s atomic explanation of Brownian motion in the first decade of the 20th century.

Well before the dispute had been settled, many had already applied the concept of atomism to chemistry. A major example was the ion theory of Svante Arrhenius which anticipated ideas about atomic substructure that did not fully develop until the 20th century. Michael Faraday was another early worker, whose major contribution to chemistry was electrochemistry, in which (among other things) a certain quantity of electricity during electrolysis or electrodeposition of metals was shown to be associated with certain quantities of chemical elements, and fixed quantities of the elements therefore with each other, in specific ratios. These findings, like those of Dalton’s combining ratios, were early clues to the atomic nature of matter.


This concludes my contribution made some years ago to the Wikipedia article The History of Chemistry.

The beginnings of Chemistry I

This article contains my original, un-edited contributions to Wikipedia’s “History of Chemistry” article from a few years back.

It can be said that chemistry would have “started” when it was possible to distinguish it from alchemy. This would not have happened until Sir Francis Bacon built on the work of Descartes and suggested a scientific method of inquiry. That would not have been at least until the 1600’s. Its application to chemistry still took longer, as many “chemists” of the day still had a poor understanding of the chemicals they were working with.

But what about the idea of atoms (atomism)? How far back can we go?

Atomism can be traced back to 440 BCE in ancient Greece, as what might be indicated by the book De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things)[1] written by the Roman Lucretius[2] in 50 BCE. In the book was found ideas traced back to Democritus and Leucippus, who declared that atoms were the most indivisible part of matter. This coincided with a similar declaration by Indian philosopher Kashyapa Kanada in his Vaishe Shika sutras around the same time period. Kashyapa arrived at his sutras by meditation. By similar means, he coined a form of Newton’s Third Law, and discussed the existence of gases, a substance not mentioned in Europe until Robert Boyle proved its existence over 1000 years later. What Kanada declared by sutra, Democritus declared by philosophical musing. Both suffered from a lack of empirical data. Without scientific proof, the existence of atoms was easy to deny. Aristotle opposed the existence of atoms in 330 BC; while on the Indian sub-continent, the study of the Vaishe Shika was suppressed almost until the 20th century.

Aristotle was rediscovered by St. Thomas Aquinas and alchemist Roger Bacon in the 1200s. In Europe, the Church raised Aristotle’s writings almost to the level of scripture, associating atomism as some form of heresy.

The rise of metallurgy

It was fire that led to the discovery of glass and the purification of metals which in turn gave way to the rise of metallurgy. During the early stages of metallurgy methods of purification of metals were sought, and gold, known in ancient Egypt as early as 2600 BCE, became a precious metal. The discovery of alloys heralded the Bronze Age. After the Bronze Age, the history of metallurgy in Europe (and indeed the world) was marked by which army had better weaponry. Countries in Europe and Asia had their heydays when they made the superior alloys, which, in turn, made better armour and better weapons. This often determined the outcomes of battles.

History of chemistry – My writings

I have previously contributed to Wikipedia’s History of Chemistry article, and have since seen it taken over and re-written from everyone from scientific illiterates to people from cultures who had at least a notable chemistry tradition, but rarely did it delve into science; yet, they would plaster the history article with information that blew the contribution of their country out of proportion. Much of my writing is there, at least the tone and points of information is there.

But even if they deleted everything I wrote, I would still be happy if what remained was an improvement and was more scholarly. I am not the World’s Leading Authority on chemistry’s history, and my guess is, neither are the best contributors to this article. I just went to that article just now, and it looks well-referenced and not as flaky as before. But it has taught me that writing for Wikipedia is an invitation to flakiness and informational instability. If you like those sorts of challenges, then make an account for yourself on Wikipedia and begin writing.

Over the next little while, I have a desire to offer the world my writing of the history of chemistry, free of flakiness, as far as I can see it. I propose that it will be in a series of writings rather than one impossibly long article. Later, I will try to do the same for math.