History of Chemistry – Summary, evolution and characteristics

We explain how the history of chemistry was, its beginnings, its relationship with alchemy and how modern chemistry was founded.

history of chemistry
Modern chemists like Dalton took up ideas from antiquity.

History of chemistry

Chemistry is one of the most transcendental sciences available to human beings. Its history dates back to times long before the concept of “science” itself, since the interest of our species in understanding what matter is made of is almost as old as civilization itself. This means that chemical knowledge existed since prehistory, although with other names and organized in very different ways.

In fact, the first chemical manifestation that captured our interest was the generation of fire, more than 1,600,000 years ago. What we call combustion today was studied and possibly replicated by our ancestors of the species Homo erectus.

From the moment we learned to produce fire and handle it at will, whether to cook our food or, much later, to melt metals, bake ceramics and carry out other activities, a new world of physical and chemical transformations was at hand. our reach, and with it, a new understanding of the nature of things.

The first theories regarding the composition of matter arose in Antiquity, the work of philosophers and thinkers whose hypotheses were based both on the observation of nature, and on its mystical or religious interpretation. Its purpose was to explain why the different substances that make up the world have different properties and capacities for transformation, identifying their basic or primary elements.

One of the first theories that tried to answer this dilemma arose in Greece in the 5th century BC. C., work of the philosopher and politician Empedocles of Agrigento, who proposed that there should be four basic elements (four like the seasons) of matter: air, water, fire and earth, and that the different properties of things depended on the proportion in which they were mixed.

This logic served so that later the Hippocratic school of Greek medicine proposed its theory of the four humors that made up the human body (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile). On the other hand, the famous philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) later added the ether or quintessence as the pure and primordial element that made up the stars and the stars of the firmament.

Nevertheless, the most important precursor of chemistry in Ancient Greece was the philosopher Democritus of Abdera (c. 460-c.370 BC), who first proposed that matter was composed of minimal and fundamental particles: atoms (from the Greek atomon, “Indivisible” or “without parts”).

Later philosophers took up the idea that the universe is made up of indestructible particles, while various ancient Indian thinkers came to similar conclusions.

However, this was not the vision that was imposed during the coming centuries, but the one proposed by Christianity, among whose concerns was not the understanding of matter, as much as the salvation of the human soul. That is, for her God had created everything that exists, and that is enough.

That is why the next step in the history of chemistry should not be sought in the West, but in the flourishing Arab nations, both Persian and Muslim, heirs to the esoteric knowledge of Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. We refer to alchemy.

Alchemy was a protodiscipline born in the East, predecessor of modern chemistry. Combining mystical beliefs about the existence of the philosopher’s stone, capable of transmuting certain materials into gold, with the experimental combination of different substances, the alchemists created a good part of the instruments that we use today in chemical laboratories.

Thus, famous alchemists such as Al-Kindi (801-873), Al-Biruni (973-1048) or the famous Ibn Sina or Avicenna (c. 980-1037), learned to melt, distill and purify substances. They also discovered materials such as alcohol, caustic soda, vitriol, arsenic, bismuth, sulfuric acid, nitric acid and many others, especially metals and salts, which they associated with the celestial stars and the Kabbalistic and numerological tradition.

Although alchemists were frowned upon in the Christian West, his knowledge eventually leaked into Europe and they were rescued by philosophers and thinkers, especially those who were interested in their experiments in pursuit of the elixir of eternal life or the transformation of lead into precious metals.

As the West was reborn around the 15th century, rediscovering the knowledge of antiquity, a new way of understanding reality was developing: a secular, rational and skeptical thought that eventually gave rise to the idea of ​​science, and that he renamed alchemical inheritance as chemistry.

The appearance of Renaissance texts such as Novum Lumen Chymicum (“The new light of chemistry”) in 1605, by the Polish Michel Sedziwoj (1566-1646); Tyrocium Chymicum (“The practice of chemistry”) in 1615, by Jean Beguin (1550-1620); or especially Ortus Medicinae (“The origin of medicine”) in 1648, by the Dutchman Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580-1644), show the paradigm shift between alchemy and chemistry proper.

This transition ended formally when the English chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) proposed a properly scientific experimental method in his work The Sceptical Chymist: or Chymico-Physical Doubts & Paradoxes (“The skeptical chemist: or the doubts and chemical-physical paradoxes”). That is why he is considered the first modern chemist and one of the founders of the discipline.

From then on, chemistry took its steps as a science, which brought numerous successive hypotheses and theories, many today discarded, such as the phlogiston theory of the late seventeenth century. However, also the first chemical elements were discovered.

Its first systematic descriptions date from the early 18th century. For example, EF Geoffroy’s Table of Affinities from 1718 was the forerunner of the Periodic Table of the Elements that appeared in the 19th century, the work of the Russian Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907).

During the 18th century, the investigations of the great founders of modern chemistry took place, like Georg Brandt (1694-1768), Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) or the physicist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827).

His contributions were diverse and very significant, but among them stands out the revival of atomic theory in 1803, thanks to the work of the English John Dalton (1766-1844), who reformulated and adapted it to the understanding of modern times. So transcendent was this contribution that 19th century chemistry was all divided between those who supported Dalton’s vision and those who did not.

The former, however, continued and updated atomic theory in later years, thus laying the groundwork for contemporary atomic models that emerged in the twentieth century, and for the understanding that we have today about the operation of matter. The study of radioactivity was also fundamental in this, whose pioneers were Marie Curie (1867-1934) and her husband Pierre Curie (1859-1906).

Thanks to these discoveries and those made in the 20th century by scientists of the stature of Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), Hans Geiger (1882-1945), Niels Bohr (1885-1962), Gilbert W. Lewis (1875-1946) , Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) and many others, the call began atomic era.

This new period had its successes (such as nuclear energy) and its horrors (such as the atomic bomb), thus inaugurating an unsuspected chapter in the history of chemistry, which allowed humanity a deep and revolutionary understanding of matter, such as I’d never even dreamed of it before.