Interestingly, the world’s first known chemist was a woman. A cuneiform tablet from the second millennium B.C. reveals that a perfumer and palace head by the name of Tapputi infused the essences of flowers and other aromatic sources. Then she added water and then sent them back to the still (a distilling apparatus) several times until she arrived at her desired resulting concoction. Her procedure is also one of the first and earliest recorded incidences of distillation.
By the Middle Ages, Arabs and Europeans, in particular, had been practicing alchemy. Alchemy is now an antiquated science that involves an attempt to turn base metals into precious metals like gold and silver. Discovering a universal solvent and elixir to prolong human life. You could say that alchemy was a forerunner of modern chemistry. While its attempts to explain the nature of matter and how it transforms were off the mark, this protoscience had become a vital part of understanding how metals and ores could be utilized and manipulated.
The earliest chemists
Early humans made fire and controlled it nearly one and a half million years ago. Controlling this chemical reaction protected them from predators, warmed them, made their food more nutritious and paved the way for the cognitive revolution. Almost forty thousand years ago, prehistoric humans used small amounts of gold in their tools.
Over 3000 years ago, different civilizations were making soap, glass blowing, smelting tin, lead and copper, fashioning weapons using bronze, tin, and iron from meteors, glazing their clay pots, making wine and brewing beer and purifying ores to get valuable metals.
Ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Chinese civilizations made use of iron by employing ferrous metallurgy.
Ancient philosophers made attempts to theorize the behavior, transformation, and nature of substances. Ancient philosophers in many civilizations, individually, postulated these early theories. Ancient Greek, Chinese, and Mayan philosophers categorized substances into four fundamental elements, namely, air, earth water, and fire. One of these philosophers was Empedocles, who put forth this theory in 420 BC.
Democritus, a Greek philosopher, divined the existence of indivisible particles that all matter is composed of. He called them “atomos”. An ancient Indian philosopher, Kanabhuk, also proposed a similar idea in his manuscripts. Epicurus supported this theory while Aristotle opposed it.
An influential Persian chemist, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, followed in the footsteps of Aristotle, supporting the idea of four primary elements and two philosophical ones: Sulphur and mercury. He described sulfur as a combustible stone. A Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus further built on this idea. Since sulfur burns, mercury evaporates, and salt is stable, he came up with these three principles that, according to him, are physical manifestations of Aristotle’s primary elements.
Modern chemistry and beyond
What all these proto-scientific theories lacked, was empirical evidence. The dawn of the 17th century marked the advent of modern chemistry when chemists started applying the scientific method to their studies. Robert Boyle was one of the earliest modern chemists. He differentiated between compounds and mixtures, essentially classifying all substances into two different categories. He also explained how smaller particles combine in various ways to form molecules. And formulated two of the most prominent laws of chemistry, the laws of gases. He also authored one of the most noteworthy books in this scientific discipline, The Sceptical Chymist. Many scientific discoveries during this period were spearheaded by Joseph Priestley, C.W. Scheele, Nicholas LeBlanc, Antoine Lavoisier (who is sometimes regarded as the “Father of Modern Chemistry”), Alessandro Volta and many others, opened new horizons to our understanding of chemistry.
In the following century, Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, the founder of modern mineralogy, discovered nickel and tungsten and ushered an era of discovery of many elements and compounds. In the same century, the first carbon containing metallic compound was synthesized, now known as Cacodyl oxide. Carbon dioxide was isolated and oxygen was discovered.
Volta invented the first electrical battery, using copper plates and salt solution, and so founded electrochemistry.
The father of modern chemistry, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, formulated the law of conservation of mass, refuted the theory that all combustible materials have a special substance – phlogiston theory, and invented the method of naming and classifying chemical compounds.
In the century following it, John Dalton formulated the modern theory of atom which sparked many other discoveries.
Atomic masses of several elements were measured and many new ones discovered. The gas laws were modified, the theory of vitalism (the idea that organic compounds can only be created by living things), the law of conservation of energy devised. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. Mendeleev devised the first periodic table by systematically and predicted three elements that were later discovered. organizing all known elements.
The laws of thermodynamics were formed and the concept of entropy introduced. Towards the end of this revolutionary century, electrons were discovered. Marie Curie pioneered the science of radioactivity. Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom, proving that atom was made up of constituent particles.
In the twentieth century, Neil Bohr founded Quantum Mechanics. Models explaining the chemical bonding between atoms were developed. Wave-particle duality was introduced which proved that light is both a wave and a particle. Many new elements were discovered and the new periodic table introduced. The process of nuclear fission was discovered – the process used to power nuclear power plants and atom bombs. Many strides were made in the field of molecular biology, leading to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
The introduction of the newer chemical elements further heightened our knowledge in this scientific field and these would apply (and continue to apply) into our everyday lives.
Since then chemistry has greatly advanced by leaps and bounds. This particular field of science yielded many branches that include (but are not limited to):
- analytical chemistry
- chemical engineering
- environmental chemistry
- food chemistry
- general chemistry
- medicinal chemistry
- nuclear chemistry
- physical chemistry
… and so much more.
Learning about the history of chemistry is key to understanding our modern world. Chemists have been able to take the raw materials of the earth and shape them into the material world around us. Without chemistry, there would be no cars, airplanes, pharmaceuticals, synthetics to name a few.