History of Chemistry

Even though the Greek philosopher, Democritus, was the first person to say that matter is made up of very small, indivisible particles that he called atomos, John Dalton is considered the father of chemistry. John Dalton proposed the modern atomic theory in 1808. Investigators learned that atoms were composed of subatomic particles called electrons, protons, and neutrons in 1850.

The alchemists were the first to study chemistry. They had two quests, to change lead into gold or to find the Philosopher’s Stone, and to find the Elixir of Life, a concoction that would lead to a long life and to cure illnesses. The alchemists discovered many processes, elements, and chemical compounds in the Middle Ages even though alchemy was a mixture of science, medicine, magic, and religion. They discovered the elements hydrogen and phosphorous, alcohol and gun powder, and the processes of filtration, evaporation, and distillation.

Organic chemistry, the study of carbon compounds, was discovered in 1828 with the synthesis of urea and aspirin.

Batteries were introduced in 1860. The first alkaline dry cell battery was produced in 1949. The alkaline battery was a significant development because of its compact size, use at wider range of temperatures, and the delivery of a constant voltage over a longer period of time.

There were only four elements during Aristotle’s time: air, fire, water, and earth. Dmitri Mendeleev developed a classification system for the elements called the periodic table in 1869. Even though only 69 elements were known when he developed this classification system, the periodic table allowed him to predict undiscovered elements and their properties.

The Curies discovered radioactivity in 1912 which led to the development of nuclear reactors to produce electricity and the nuclear arsenal in the 1940s. The discovery of radioactivity along with x-rays in 1895 resulted in the formation of nuclear medicine which is used for diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Polymer chemistry and the invention of synthetic fibers began in the 1920s. Naturally occurring polymers include cotton, cellulose, rubber, proteins, and nucleic acids. Synthetic polymers include Bakelite, acrylic, nylon, rayon, Dacron, polyester, primaloft, Lucite, Plexiglas, polystyrene, vinyl, and Teflon.

Watson and Crick deduced the double helix structure of DNA ushering in molecular biology and biochemistry in 1953. Eventually this led to determining the genetic code for multiple species and the ability to identify a crime suspect through forensic DNA tests.

Synthetic hormones to treat thyroid disease and insulin dependant diabetes were produced in the 1970s and 1980s.

Superconductors and nanotechnology were discovered in 1986. Superconductors will reduce the need for oil and coal in the future. Superconductors will be used to provide self-propelled rail cars and ships and to power electric vehicles traveling on electrified roads. Nanotechnology will provide small filters that can remove bacteria and viruses from water and will allow electrical separation to remove salts and heavy metals from water. Nanotechnology will allow the world to make use of wasted water resources because this filters and separation mechanisms will be cheap ways to purify water. Nanotechnology will allow an entire supercomputer to fit onto one cubic millimeter. Then small, cheap sensors and computers can be implanted into humans and animals to allow continuous health monitoring and semi-automated medical treatment. Imagine a small device that can replace a human pancreas and effectively cure insulin dependant diabetes and eliminate the need for blood glucose monitors and insulin shots or a portable kidney dialysis machine. These instruments are the future of medicine made possible through chemistry.

Chemistry developed in the last 200 years. The technology has been invented through chemistry that is the equivalent of the Alchemist quest for the Elixir of Life. Superconductors and nanotechnology will eliminate the need to find the Philosopher’s Stone to create expensive metals from cheap, base metals and will eliminate the threat of oil becoming the new gold standard.