(prior to 1800)

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(Contemporary Events prior to 1800)     {Alchemy}     (Prelude to Chemistry (pre-1800))

ELEMENTS DISCOVERED BEFORE 1800:     ( Italicized if discovered after 1700 )

H --
-- -- -- C N O -- --
-- -- -- -- P S Cl --
-- -- -- Ti -- Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn -- -- As -- -- --
-- -- -- -- -- Mo -- -- -- -- Ag -- -- Sn Sb Te -- --
-- -- -- -- -- W -- -- -- Pt Au Hg -- Pb Bi -- -- --
-- -- -- -- -- U


The following modern "elements" were known to the ancients:


Empedocles (ca. 490-435 B.C.) introduced the concept of the Four Elements:

  1. Air
  2. Earth
  3. Fire
  4. Water
All material substances were produced by union of these elementary units, not themselves resolvable into simpler particles. No atomic conception. The Four Elements were also postulated in early Hindu thought.

Empedocles was tending toward the concept of an element as we define and element, Democritus towards the concept of an atom as we understand it, but there was apparently no thought of combining the ideas as we do when we speak of the atom of an element.

PLATO (427-347 B.C.) and ARISTOTLE (384-322 B.C.) abandoned the effort to account for physical phenomena by physical forces exclusively. Consequently, the great influence they had upon later thought was detrimental rather than stimulating to scientific advance. Discarding the atomic conception, they held that matter is continuous and infinitely divisible. The Four Elements are properties or qualities rather than substances that compose all matter. Particular examples of matter have intermediate degrees of these qualities, as indicated in the diagram below:

One element can be changed into another by overcoming one property by its opposite. This concept led to the hope of changing base metals into gold (a recurring theme that will be important in alchemy until approximately 1800).
{Note the addition of the fifth element---"quintessence"---non-material, all pervading.}

Another concept of this period was that metals consist of "sulphur" and "mercury;" this concept was extended somewhat by Chinese alchemists.


These Four Elements were also part of early Hindu thought, and were

Hindu philosophy had no important influence upon the development of chemistry in the Western World.


Along the same lines, in early Chinese thought (the Shu-ching ("CANONICAL BOOK OF RECORDS", 2200 B.C.) ) sets forth the Chinese five elements:
  1. Metal
  2. Water
  3. Fire
  4. Wood
  5. Earth
which change into one another in an unending cycle. The four element theory probably reached China later from Greek sources via India (with the introduction of Buddism).

1-1300 A.D.

ALBERTUS MAGNUS (1193-1280) described arsenic.
{No elemental discoveries during the 1400's.)


Bismuth first mentioned.
BIRINGUCCIO (1480-1539) describes antimony (which was also known to the ancients.
PARACELSUS (1493-1541) used the TRIA PRIMA (all matter consists of:
  1. mercury-- fusibility, volatility, liquidity.
  2. sulphur-- combustibility.
  3. salt-- non-combustibility, involatility.

Modifications of the TRIA PRIMA were made soon after its appearance, especially in an addition of two passive principles--- phlegm and earth, to the three "active" principles. Also, water might be substituted for mercury.

Paracelsus was first to describe zinc.


ROBERT BOYLE rejuvenated the atomic theory of EPICURUS (341-270 B.C.).
In his "SCEPTICAL CHYMIST", Boyle described atoms of different sizes and shapes. He opposed the Aristotelian and Paracelsan ideas of elements, introducing the modern concept:
"Certain Primitive and Single, or perfectly unmingled bodies which not being made of any other bodies, or of one another, are the ingredients of which all those called perfectly mixed bodies are immediately compounded."
1669: Phosphorus: BRAND (cf. 1669).


1735: Cobalt: BRANDT (1694-1768).
1748: Platinum: WOOD (cf. 1741).
1751: Nickel: CRONSTEDT (1702-1765).
1766: Hydrogen: CAVENDISH (1731-1810)
1772: Nitrogen: D. RUTHERFORD (1749-1819)
1774: Chlorine = "Dephlogisticated marine acid" : SCHEELE (1742-1786)
1774: Manganese: GAHN.
1781: Molybdenum: HJELM (1746-1813)
1783: Tellurium: REICHENSTEIN (1740-1825)
1783: Tungsten: ELHUYAR (1755-1833)
1789: Uranium: KLAPROTH (1743-1817)
1791: Titanium: GREGOR. (as oxide; Ti metal isolated by Berzelius in 1825)
1798: Chromium: VAUQUELIN (1763-1829)