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.