Chemistry is the second oldest science - The only science that is older is Astronomy
Alchemists were the earliest chemists (~1500 AD), but were not really scientists - they did not have models to interpret their experimental results.
  • Their quest was to turn common metals such as lead into precious metals such as gold.
  • Alchemists never realized their goal, but in their quest they discovered many of the chemicals that are in common use today.
  • Alchemy failed but mankind needs "quests" to motivate them. The next quest was for the elixir "vitae" - the elixir of life!
  • The goal was to discover a potion that would give a person almost eternal life.
  • Like alchemy this goal was also doomed to failure.
  • However, the quest for the elixer of life gave birth to modern day western medicine..
  • The next quest was the explanation of fire - What is fire (the first theory)?
  • The first person to attempt an explanation of a natural phenomenon was John Becher (1625-1682). He suggested that fire was simply the release of a substance in all matter he called "phlogiston". The ashes simply represented the original matter minus its phlogiston.
  • Becher's explained ashes from, say, wood but it failed to explain the ashes of metals - where the ashes are actually heavier than the original metal.
  • Becher insisted that the phlogiston ideas was still valid for metals, except that for metals it had the property "levity".
  • Becher's explanation was the first example of a scientific hypothesis - an explanation of a natural phenomenon that can be objectively tested in the laboratory.
    Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794)
    • It took over one hundred years before Becher's theory was discarded by the scientific community.
    • Lavoisier finally discarded it and correctly explained fire as the combustion of matter with oxygen.
    • Lavoisier also understood that if the science of chemistry was to evolve a new more precise language needed to be developed.
    • The old alchemist language was too arcane and cumbersome
    • Lavoisier introduced the concepts for the modern day chemical language and in the process discarded the alchemists language.

    John Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848)

  • One more ingredient was need to allow the science of chemistry to "take off"
  • Berzelius realized the symbols are as important as words.
  • Berzelius developed the principles for the modern day symbols for the elements and their compounds.
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    C101 Class Notes
    Prof. N. De Leon