The History of Chemistry


Chemistry is one of the most important sciences for human society. From the discovery of fire to the creation of life-saving medicines its use has permeated every facet of life. The history of chemistry is a long and rich one with many books and translations available to historians. The various recorded discoveries that were made over time have gradually been improved to allow us to enjoy many of the things we take for granted in the present world as we know it today.

Chemical Heritage Foundation: Chemistry in world history
Selected Classic Papers from the History of Chemistry: A very interesting collection of publications on the history of chemistry
A Brief History of Chemistry (.pdf file) A publication summarizing the history of chemistry

Chemistry around the World

The First Chemical Discovery of the World: Fire is probably one of the earliest chemical discoveries made by man, though early man thought it to be some kind of magical power. The discovery of fire occurred in every culture and region since it was the basis of human requirement for food and shelter. It eventually became used for more advanced facets of life such as brick making, hardening pottery and melting metals to make tools and weapons. The philosophical study of fire and its behavior led our ancient ancestors to the beginning of chemistry. This study brought them to understand basic elements such as water, earth, and light. This was such an important and foundational discovery by mankind that cultures which had no cross trade whatsoever such as Greek, Indian and Mayan all considered fire, water, air and earth as the primary elements.
Ancient Greece and India: Atomism, a philosophy of the ancient world, considered the natural world to be made up of atoms and voids. Atoms were thought to be invisible bodies and voids a vacuum. Greek atomism dates back to 440 B.C. through a book written by Lucretius called The Nature of Things. Around the same time, an Indian philosopher called Khanda wrote the Vaisheshika sutras. Both of these presented ideas about the concept of atoms. Khanda also examined the presences of gasses in this publication. Since both these philosophers lacked scientific proof it was easy for others to ignore their theories.
Ancient Egypt: The discovery of fire brought about the science of metallurgy. Metallurgy, the study of physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements, was refined due to the discovery of glass and the purification of metals. Egyptians discovered gold around 2600 B.C. They understood that the properties of gold made it an extremely precious metal. This discovery can be considered the beginning of the discovery of alloys and the onset of the Bronze Age.
Europe and Asia: Eurasia was the first region to discover the power of alloys and make the most of the Bronze Age especially during war times. It is thought that those nations which had superior alloys had a better chance of winning battles. Alchemy was another important concept that shaped much of modern day chemistry. It was rooted in the belief that an elixir could change any metal to gold and prevent human bodies from become old. Alchemy was a highly studied topic during the time of the bubonic plague in Europe. There was hope that the discovery of this elixir would help in creating stronger medicines. Alchemy was also misused to produce 'fake gold' during this time and in 1403 a law was passed in Europe which punished this crime by death. The 'language' of alchemy was not well structured and possibly even coded.
Arab World: The Arab world began understanding chemistry by translating ancient Greek and Egyptian writings. Though this work was slow and tedious, Jābir ibn Hayyān (sometimes known as Geber) introduced a systematic and experimental approach to the research. He created many chemical substances and defined the difference between alkalis and acids. He was also responsible for manufacturing hundreds of drugs. Other discoveries by the Arab World included conservation of mass, developing of crucial instruments of chemistry such as the crucible, head of a still, and various types of furnaces which still exist today.
Indian Chemistry through the Ages: A good summary on the history of chemistry in the Indian subcontinent
The Making of a Chemist: The social history of chemistry in Europe
The History of Chemistry: A brief summary on the Islamic history of chemistry

Famous Chemists
There are so many important chemists that contributed to modern day chemistry that they are usually organized in a long alphabetical index in any history of chemistry resource. Below are a few of the notable names that have repeatedly been mentioned in the history of this important science.
Gaius Plinius Secundus

  • Born in Rome, 23 to 79
  • Major Areas of Contribution: Conceiving the theory of the four major elements including fire, earth, water and air. Came up with the earliest theories of gravity, and made a model of the solar system.

Jābir ibn Hayyān

  • Born in Persia, 721 to 815
  • Major Areas of Contribution: Developed the basis of alchemy, perfection of scientific techniques including crystallization, distillation, sublimation, evaporation, along with others.

Jean Beguin 

  • Place of birth unknown, 1550 to 1620
  • Major Areas of Contribution: Published the first chemistry textbook which also included the first chemical formula

Robert Boyle

  • Born in Ireland, 1627 to 1691
  • Major Areas of Contribution: Developed Boyle's law, investigations on the expansion of freezing water, specific gravities, refractive powers, study of crystals, electricity, and color.'

Henry Cavendish

  • Born in England, 1731 to 1810
  • Major Areas of Contribution: Discovered hydrogen, the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, discovered an accurate value of the Earth's density and performed a great deal of electrical research.

Antoine Lavoisier

  • Born in France, 1743 to 1794
  • Major Areas of Contribution: Discovered oxygen, helped to develop the metric system, defined sulfur as an element and not a compound, discovered that matter may change form but mass remains the same, and combined hydrogen and oxygen to make water

John Dalton

  • Born in England, 1766 to 1844
  • Major Areas of Contribution: Developed the basis for modern atomic theory, researched color blindness, discovered the vapor pressure of 6 different liquids, numerous gas laws and a table of relative atomic weights.

Dmitri Mendeleyev

  • Born in Russia, 1834 to 1907
  • Major Areas of Contribution: Developed the first version of the periodic table, studied the expansion of liquids with heat, and the invention of a smokeless powder.

Famous Chemist Backgrounds: A list of famous chemists with their information
The Scientific 100: A ranking of the most influential scientists, past and present
Famous Chemists: A list of famous chemists with their pictures

History of Chemistry Timeline
The timeline of chemistry is perhaps one of the longest in all the major sciences. Below is a summary timeline with years of the more major discoveries and milestones. It's important to note that the earlier dates are approximates.
1700 BC ' A list of known metals was recorded and coincided with heavenly bodies
430 BC ' The atom was proposed by Democritus who claimed that all matter was made of an atom
300 BC ' Aristotle describes the concept of five elements fire, water, earth, air, and aether, along with their properties of hot, cold, dry and wet.
300 BC to 300 AD ' Alchemists tried to change cheap metals to gold with the concept of the Philosophers stone
815 - Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, the father of chemistry, makes important advancements in alchemy and other chemical research
1267 ' The Opus Maius is published by Roger Bacon containing a primary form of the scientific method and experiments with gunpowder.
1615 ' Jean Beguin publishes an early chemistry textbook and uses the first chemical equation in history
1803 ' Dalton publishes the Atomic theory which states that matter is made of atoms which are small and invisible
1854 ' The vacuum tube is created by Heinrich Geissler
1895 ' X-rays are accidentally discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen
1911 ' Three types of radioactive particles are discovered by Ernest Rutherford, including alpha, beta and gamma
1932 ' The neutron is discovered by James Chadwick
1943 - Irene Curie and Frederic Joliot-Curi discover that radioactive elements can be artificially produced

Chemsoc Timeline: A visual exploration of key events in the evolution of chemistry
Timerime: A multimedia based chemistry timeline
Timetoast: A visual timeline of chemical history

Other Resources for the History of Chemistry
CyberSleuth Kids: Resources for the history of chemistry
History of Chemistry: A collection of books, magazines, and other publications on the history of chemistry
The History of Chemistry: A concise list of scientists and experiments
Chemistry Guide: Numerous resources on the history of chemistry
Getting to Know the History of Chemistry: (.pdf file) a detailed look into the science's past

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