Brief History of Chemistry


Chemistry is a central science that is part of every aspect of life from the materials we use everyday to the functioning of life on this planet. Before we enter into a discussion on the history we should define just what is chemistry? The dictionary definition states that chemistry is the science of composition, structure, properties and reactions of matter, especially of atomic and molecular systems. The central theme of chemistry is that all matter consists of molecules that are comprised of atoms.

For thousands of years people have studies the transformation of materials into new materials with potential properties that they desired. This was the basis of the well known field known as alchemy which was popular from around 1900 BC to about 1700. Some well known goals of alchemy work were to convert metals into gold or to convert materials into the Elixir of Life which was thought to cure all diseases. These experiments were in essence attempts to perform chemical reactions but their basis was not scientific. However the practice of experimentation and recording of results set the stage for modern chemistry. Eventually people became skeptical of alchemy and frustrated with the language used to report results. Modern chemistry essentially grew out of the skepticism and the need to have a more systematic explanation of the phenomena that was being observed.

The bridge between alchemy and modern chemistry may be started with Islamic alchemists. Around the year 815 Islamic alchemists such as Jabir ibn Hayyan (also known as Gerber) introduced experimentation and methods of experimental chemistry used today such as crystallization, distillation and filtration. He introduced a systematic and experimental approach to scientific research based in the laboratory, in contrast to traditional alchemists whose works lacked scientific reasoning. For around 700 years (between 900 to 1600) alchemy gradually fell out of favor and the scientific method was developed. More people began to use defined experiments and observations to disprove some of the earlier theories of alchemy and form a new understanding of chemistry and the world around them.

The development of the scientific method led to some pivotal work in the early 1600s, notably the publication of a book by Robert Boyle. Robert Boyle is credited as one the fathers of modern chemistry after he published his book The Sceptical Chymist in the early 17th century which outlines some of the original ideas of atoms, molecules and chemical reactions. This work provides a clear distinction between alchemy and chemistry and formed the basis for the modern theory of chemistry. Boyle’s research which included the famous Boyle’s Law (describes the relationship between pressure and volume for gases) stimulated a flurry of research particularly on gases for the next 100 years.

This set the stage for work of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier who made some of the most important early discoveries and perhaps the most important theory in chemistry. The law of conservation of mass was credited as being first stated by Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier in 1789 (at least stated clearly and definitely). This law states that the mass of a closed system will remain constant over time. From this law the basis for principles of chemical reactions were created, that is the mass of the products of a reaction must equal the mass of the reactants.

After the law of conservation of mass was defined the understanding of chemical reactions took on a whole new light. An explosion of research followed and many discoveries were made in the next 300 years (too many to list here). The principles for modern chemistry were put in place and the world of chemistry that we know today began to form through these discoveries.