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History of chemistry

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The History of Chemistry

Chemistry has advanced from the Egyptians with their practical applications to modern day Noble Peace Prize winners. The opportunity for chemistry is everywhere around us and has been there since the beginning of time. It is only until we harness and research the properties of metals and chemicals can we see chemistry's importance. Chemistry is a part of washing your hair in the morning, making hot soup for lunch, and cleaning your windows when you get home.

Ancient Chemistry

Ancient Egyptians

The beginning of chemistry cannot be traced back to a particular date, but it can be seen in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, and India, long before the birth of Christ.

The Egyptians did not have a vast knowledge of the chemical world, but rather, knew of its numerous practical applications [1]. Corpses are still preserved to this day through the embalming and mummification by the Egyptians. They also had bright and rich colored dyes used for clothing and make up. They could bind stone and metal, create fireproof paper, and worked with medicines and medical applications like anesthesia. [2]

The Indians, as well, were very knowledgeable in certain chemical applications like dyes and clothing. The Hindus prepared color-fast dyes and were able to take the color blue from the Indigo plant. [3]

Both of the above civilizations, as well as the Babylonians, mined and refined metal ores into usable metals. [[4]]

A Greek philosopher

Chemistry took a big jump between the 5th and 3rd century B.C. with the help of philosophers in ancient Greece. Instead of just applying science they began to think about the processes behind it and how they occurred. The Greeks developed many mathematical and scientific theories that would be used by later civilizations [5]. In the year approximately 450 B.C. a Greek philosopher by the name of Empedocles proposed a new theory on the subject of matter. He said that the all matter was composed of these four elements: earth, air, fire, and water [6]. He believed that all things could be made with the right proportions and combinations of these elements. The elements could be mixed, but they would still retain their individual characteristics, and they themselves would not be changed [7]. One hundred years later Aristotle added on to this theory by saying that each of these elements was made up of two of these properties: hot, cold, wet or dry [8]. At about 430 B.C. Democritus verbalizes the idea which led to the creation of the atom. Democritus states that all matter was created from very small, endless, indestructible pieces which bind to each other [9].


Alchemy symbols

Alchemy, just like chemistry, had its beginnings in the ancient times of Egypt, Babylon, and India. Alchemy is the process of adding value and worth to unrefined materials. Influenced by the ideas of Aristotle, alchemists are most known for trying to change cheap metals into gold and find the elixir of life. Some approached alchemy as another branch of chemistry, while still others approached alchemy as completely mythical and fantastical. Alchemy hit its peak during the medieval time period and dwindled off in the 17th and 18th centuries [10].

The alchemist's thinking was based off the theory of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. If all matter was composed of these four elements alchemists believed they would be able to transmute anything by mixing together the right ingredients in the right proportions. The only catch would be finding that perfect balance. Their search for cheap gold also came out in their search for the philosopher's stone, which would turn anything it touched into gold. [11].

The elixir of life was never found and regular metals were never turned into gold, but alchemy does offer important things to chemistry today. Alchemists developed the process of distillation, the purification of a substance, and developed strong acids such as nitric acid and hydrochloric acid. [12] The study of alchemy declined with the "Skeptic Chemist", the published work of Robert Boyle. He criticized Aristotle's idea of a world created by only four elements. He redefined the definition of an "element" to a substance that can not be broken down any farther by chemical processes. This idea revolutionized chemistry and sparked a new period of researching and experimenting [13].

Traditional Chemistry

The reconstructed laboratory of Antoine Lavoisier, "The Father of Modern Chemistry"

Joseph Priestly and Antoine Lavoisier can be attributed as the discoverers of oxygen. In the late 1700's Joseph Priestly one day in the lab discovered what he thought was to be "dephlogisticated air", but in reality was oxygen. About twenty years later Antoine Lavoisier renamed this substance to oxygen when he realized this was the part of the air that bound to other substances when they burned. Through this the Phlogiston Theory was dispelled and now Lavoisier is recognized as "The Father of Modern Chemistry" [14].

In the year 1803 John Dalton promoted his atomic theory, which stated, all matter was made up of very small particles called atoms. Elements were substances made up of only one type of atom and substances differed because they were made up of different combinations of atoms. These atoms had different masses. He also said that compounds were pure substances because their make up was a specific set ratio of different types of atoms. When a chemical reaction occurs the atoms of elements and compounds are rearranged [15]

Modern Chemistry

Chemistry has greatly advanced in the past 150 years with creations and discoveries such as the vacuum tube in 1854 by German physicist Heinrich Geissler, the different parts of an atom, and the compound pitchblend which gives off a fluorescent light [16].

In 1879 William Crookes discovered cathode rays using the newly created vacuum tube. While using a glass tube, Crookes coated zinc sulfide on the inside of one end, placed a cross-shaped anode in the middle of the tube, and a cathode on the other end. When electricity was sent through the tube, the cross shape glowed as well as the zinc sulfide. From there William believed that the cathode must have given off rays to create the glowing, hence the name cathode rays [17]

The positively charged part of the atom, known as the proton, was discovered by Eugene Goldstein in 1885. Twelve years later J.J. Thomson discovered the electron. He used a cathode tube, like the one William Crookes used, and realized the cathode rays were negatively charged and all atoms had some of these negatively charged parts as well. He renamed Crook's cathode rays to electrons [18].

A replica of the first X-ray tube

Again, by experimenting with cathode rays, something new was discovered in the year 1895, the x-ray. While researching cathode rays in the dark, Wilhelm Roentgen noticed that a bottle of barium platinocyanide was glowing on his shelf. The rays could pass through a multitude of substances such as walls, paper, and in this particular case glass! William named these rays x-rays [19].

Between the years of 1868 and 1870, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev developed what is now known as the periodic table. He organized the elements in horizontal rows based on their atomic masses. Because only about half known now were discovered in Mendeleev's time, the rows didn't line up perfectly. Only when he left empty spaces between certain elements did the vertical rows line up as well. When all the rows did line up though, several patterns were seen and the elements were in similar groups [20].

Radioactivity was made its presence be known in chemistry in the last one hundred years with the help of female chemist and physicist Marie Curie. She discovered both the radioactive elements polonium and radium and opened up the doors to the science of radioactivity. Ernest Rutherford discovered three different types of radioactivity with the use of a magnetic field and a radioactive source. The three particles discovered were alpha particles (positive), beta particles (negative) and gamma rays (neutral) [21].

In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the neutron which prepared the way for nuclear fission [22]. That same year Enrico Fermi worked with neutrons and elements with high atomic masses and when he bombarded Uranium with neutrons nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms, occurred [23].

Notable Chemists

Some of the most famous chemists of the past include:

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