The History of Chemistry

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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History of Chemistry  

Chemistry is a branch of science that has been around for a long time. In fact, chemistry is known to date back to as far as the prehistoric times. Due to the amount of time chemistry takes up on the timeline, the science is split into four general chronological categories. The four categories are: prehistoric times – beginning of the Christian era (black magic), beginning of the Christian era – end of 17th century (alchemy), end of 17th century – mid 19th century (traditional chemistry) and mid 19th century – present (modern chemistry).

Time Intervals Specific Times Events Description

Prehistoric Times -Beginning of the Christian Era

(Black Magic)

1700 BC King Hammurabi‘s reign over Babylon Known metals were recorded and listed in conjunction with heavenly bodies.
430 BC Democritus of ancient Greece Democritus proclaims the atom to be the simplest unit of matter. All matter was composed of atoms.
300 BC Aristotle of ancient Greece Aristotle declares the existence of only four elements: fire, air, water and earth. All matter is made up of these four elements and matter had four properties: hot, cold, dry and wet.
Beginning of the Christian Era -End of 17th Century



300 BC -300 AD The Advent of the Alchemists Influenced greatly by Aristotle’s ideas, alchemists attempted to transmute cheap metals to gold. The substance used for this conversion was called the Philosopher’s Stone.
13th Century (1200’s) – 15th Century (1400’s) Failure of the Gold Business Although Pope John XXII issued an edict against gold-making, the gold business continued. Despite the alchemists’ efforts, transmutation of cheap metals to gold never happened within this time period.
1520 Elixir of Life Alchemists not only wanted to convert metals to gold, but they also wanted to find a chemical concoction that would enable people to live longer and cure all ailments. This elixir of life never happened either.
End of 17th Century Death of Alchemy The disproving of Aristotle’s four-elements theory and the publishing of the book, The Skeptical Chemist (by Robert Boyle), combined to destroy this early form of chemistry.

End of 17th Century –

Mid 19th Century

(Traditional Chemistry) 




Phlogiston TheoryCoulomb’s Law

Johann J. Beecher believed in a substance called phlogiston. When a substance is burned, phlogiston was supposedly added from the air to the flame of the burning object. In some substances, a product is produced. For example, calx of mercury plus phlogiston gives the product of mercury.

Charles Coulomb discovered that given two particles separated by a certain distance, the force of attraction or repulsion is directly proportional to the product of the two charges and is inversely proportional to the distance between the two charges.

1774-1794 Disproving of the Phlogiston Theory Joseph Priestley heated calx of mercury, collected the colorless gas and burned different substances in this colorless gas. Priestley called the gas “dephlogisticated air”, but it was actually oxygen. It was Antoine Lavoisier who disproved the Phlogiston Theory. He renamed the “dephlogisticated air” oxygen when he realized that the oxygen was the part of air that combines with substances as they burn. Because of Lavoisier’s work, Lavoisier is now called the “Father of Modern Chemistry”.
1803 Dalton’s Atomic Theory John Dalton publishes his Atomic Theory which states that all matter is composed of atoms, which are small and indivisible.

Mid 19th Century –


(Modern Chemistry or

20th Century Chemistry) 



1854 Vacuum Tube Heinrich Geissler creates the first vacuum tube.
1879 Cathode Rays William Crookes made headway in modern atomic theory when he used the vacuum tube made by Heinrich Geissler to discover cathode rays. Crookes created a glass vacuum tube which had a zinc sulfide coating on the inside of one end, a metal cathode imbedded in the other end and a metal anode in the shape of a cross in the middle of the tube. When electricity was run through the apparatus, an image of the cross appeared and the zinc sulfide glowed. Crookes hypothesized that there must have been rays coming from the cathode which caused the zinc sulfide to fluoresce and the cross to create a shadow and these rays were called cathode rays.
1885 The Proton Eugene Goldstein discovered positive particles by using a tube filled with hydrogen gas (this tube was similar to Thomson’s tube…see 1897). The positive particle had a charge equal and opposite to the electron. It also had a mass of 1.66E-24 grams or one atomic mass unit. The positive particle was named the proton.
1895 X-rays Wilhelm Roentgen accidentally discovered x-rays while researching the glow produced by cathode rays. Roentgen performed his research on cathode rays within a dark room and during his research, he noticed that a bottle of barium platinocyanide was glowing on a shelf. He discovered that the rays that were causing the fluorescence could also pass through glass, cardboard and walls. The rays were called x-rays.
1896 Pitchblend Henri Becquerel was studying the fluorescence of pitchblend when he discovered a property of the pitchblend compound. Pitchblend gave a fluorescent light with or without the aid of sunlight.

The Electron and Its PropertiesRadioactive Elements

J.J. Thomson placed the Crookes’ tube within a magnetic field. He found that the cathode rays were negatively charged and that each charge had a mass ratio of 1.759E8 coulombs per gram. He concluded that all atoms have this negative charge (through more experiments) and he renamed the cathode rays electrons. His model of the atom showed a sphere of positively charged material with negative electrons stuck in it. Thomson received the 1906 Nobel Prize in physics.

Marie Curie discovered uranium and thorium within pitchblend. She then continued to discover two previously unknown elements: radium and polonium. These two new elements were also found in pitchblend. She received two nobel prizes for her discovery; one was in chemistry while the other was in physics.

1909 Mass of the Electron Robert Millikan discovered the mass of an electron by introducing charged oil droplets into an electrically charged field. The charge of the electron was found to be 1.602E-19 coulombs. Using Thomson’s mass ration, Millikan found the mass of one electron to be 9.11E-28 grams. Millikan received the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.
1911 Three Types of Radioactivity Ernest Rutherford sent a radioactive source through a magnetic field. Some of the radioactivity was deflected to the positive plate; some of it was deflected to the negative plate; and the rest went through the magnetic field without deflection. Thus, there were three types of radioactivity: alpha particles (+), beta particles (-) and gamma rays (neutral). By performing other experiments and using this information, Rutherford created an atomic model different from Thomson’s. Rutherford believed that the atom was mostly empty space. It contains an extremely tiny, dense positively charged nucleus (full of protons) and the nucleus is surrounded by electrons traveling at extremely high speeds. The Thomson model was thrown out after the introduction of the Rutherford model.
1914 Protons within a Nucleus Henry Moseley attempts to use x-rays to determine the number of protons in the nucleus of each atom. He was unsuccessful because the neutron had not been discovered yet.

The NeutronNeutron Bombardment and Nuclear Fission

James Chadwick discovers the neutron.

Enrico Fermi bombards elements with neutrons and produces elements of the next highest atomic number. Nuclear fission occurred when Fermi bombarded uranium with neutrons. He received the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics.

1934 Artificial Radioactive Elements Irene Curie and Frederic Joliot-Curie discovered that radioactive elements could be created artificially in the lab with the bombardment of alpha particles on certain elements. They were given the 1935 Nobel Prize.
1940’s Manhattan Project Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi both warned the United States about Germany’s extensive research on atomic fission reaction. Below the football field at the University of Chicago, the United States developed the very first working nuclear fission reactor. The Manhattan Project was in process.

 Each link for each time interval contains some information about that period. Unfortunately, the information is sparse and the presentation of the info leaves much to be desired. However, more information on chemical history can be found in the links listed below. The list is collated in a chronological manner so like the table above, alchemy and black magic should be on top while traditional and modern chemistry should be closer to the end of the list. Also, there are some other links besides the ones that are in the time-interval section and these links should lead you to more information about the underlined topics.




Additional History Links

1. Alchemy – this link provides an insight into the science that was said to precede chemistry. It gives a brief, colorful history of alchemy itself and a few stories about the people who actually practiced the science.

2. More Alchemy….a lot more – a whole website dedicated to the predecessor of chemistry. This site contains unlimited information about alchemy. If you have questions about alchemy, this is definitely the place to go!

3. THE History of Chemistry – a great cache of chemical history is contained at this Umea University Chemistry Department site. Biographies of famous scientists, collection of science papers and etc. are found and well-catalogued in this area.

4. The Week in Chemical History – this site makes a connection between the current week and an important episode in the past that had a great impact on the world of chemistry

5. Chemistry Papers – this site not only provides a great amount of papers on certain chemistry theories, but it also contains many papers written on topics in the other sciences. In fact, the papers are collected and collated by their scientific topics (chemistry, physics, biology)

6. African American Scientists – contains a list of African American scientists who have made a difference in each of their respective sciences.

7. Chemical History by Chemistry topics – this site collates its information by the chemistry topic that the information pertains to.

8. Elements’ Histories – the histories of most of the elements on the periodic table.

9. History of the Periodic Table – a brief summary of the periodic table’s past.

10. Another Periodic Table – yet another site with the histories of the elements on the periodic table.



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