A Brief History Of Chemistry

If we are speaking broadly and technically chemistry is the study of the elements and compounds they form but if we have to speak on anything, in it’s much broader sense as stated, it is so much more. In a sense it is the science of everyday life, of the matter that makes up the world and how every single one of us living in the common era can transform it in ways that to our ancestors may seem magical and fantastic even to this day.

For many of you chemistry will often summon up images off a very high school like environment consisting of test tubes, bunsen burners, white lab coats, curious smells and perhaps if done incorrectly the the vague hope of an explosion. This fleeting school-days acquaintance with the subject does little justice to how much of a scope chemistry can encompass, in this article which will cover a brief history of chemistry I hope to dispel this myth and sense of ‘smallness’ and instead show you how chemistry has transformed mankind, given rise to civilizations and captured the imagination of some of the greatest mystics and magicians in our known history.

I intend to make this as easy for the reader as possible as such you will not require any prior knowledge on this subject as I will attempt to cover most of the beginning roots of chemistry running from its most basic concepts onto the most profound laws of matter and I will attempt to do this as concisely as possible.

A sense of adventure may be required as well as curiosity as through this journey will meet some incredibly fascinating characters who helped shape the modern understanding of chemistry, this can range from anything from the way bread rises to why ice floats and why certain lizards, given the right circumstances, can actually walk on water.

Chemistry… offers one of the most powerful means towards the attainment of a higher mental cultivation… because it furnishes us with the insight into those wonders of creation which immediately surround us.

Justus Von Liebig

Now we will delve into some of the most common and basic building blocks of chemistry starting with atoms, elements, molecules and compounds. Two pairs of terms that chemists use a lot atoms and molecules, entailed to this are elements and compounds, however you may be asking yourself what is the real difference between them?

Simply put an Atom is the smallest unit of any substance, when you take an object or a substance and continue to cut it over and over and over again into smaller and smaller pieces the smallest piece that you reach which cannot be cut any further is referred to as an Atom. A molecule is 2 or more atoms joined together by chemical bonds, an element is thus the purest form of matter, one which is not made up of any other ingredients, at the moment there are 118 known elements, any substance that is not a pure element is made up of a complex combination of elements these combinations both complex and simple are referred to as compounds. An element is made up of atoms, that element and all the atoms of an element are identical to all the others. If we are to take a small example – carbon for instance is identical to every other carbon atom.

For some elements the atoms join up with each other to make small molecules, oxygen for instance in its purest form is a gas made up of molecules, each of which is composed of two oxygen atoms bonded to one another. Compounds and the molecules they are made up of form during chemical reactions wherein the atoms and molecules interact and adopt new combinations and arrangements, for example when the elements carbon and oxygen react to form the compound carbon dioxide, carbon atoms react with oxygen molecules to form molecules of carbon dioxide.

Chemistry & The Philosophers Stone

For many who don’t know the philosopher’s stone was not just an advent for JK Rowling’s purpose in Harry Potter, it was in fact an actual pursuit of chemists and alchemists in the past seeking not to transform metals into gold but rather more philosophically transform the base nature of man by transmutation into the more god like state of divinity. Most chemistry books detail more than 8,000,000 different chemical substances currently known to man occurring both naturally and artificially, as recently as 1965 only 500,000 had been characterized and produced but even this relatively small number given how many we know exist now far exceeded and outstripped the wildest imaginings of chemists that existed 200 or more years ago. In order to not overwhelm you, the reader, with the sheer breadth of this subject for now we will tackle inorganic chemistry or rather the branch of chemistry that deals with all the elements other than carbon and their subsequent compounds.

Some of the simplest carbon compounds like carbon dioxide & calcium carbonate, which you may know in some of its more commonly occurring forms such as limestone or even the chalk that a teacher uses on their chalkboard also fall within the remit of inorganic chemistry. Much about history has been concerned with inorganic chemistry leading to many of the stories to often be similar to each other or appear to be one and the same.

The tale of chemistry in the history of ideas is a tale of obsession, greed, danger, hope and inspiration. Many of these often concerned subjects many of us would consider to be rather philosophical in nature,  such as the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, the scientific revolution and the search for more evidence. All of this comes to a head, a crescendo of sorts leading up to the discovery of periodic law – the key to all chemistry.

Pre-Historic Chemistry

To many chemistry would seem a quintessentially modern science, during the much known age of enlightenment it was often regarded as the science often paving our way to modern understandings and helping light a way out of the dark ages and into the brave world of the modern laboratories but in fact chemistry is almost as old as human culture itself, as stated in a previous article, chemistry and cooking is actually what make us intrinsically human.


Arguably one of our biggest turning points in the history of human evolution have been when our ancestors, pre-historic man began to exert control over his environment, one of these is the control of fire, obviously utilizing the principles of combustion.

Now combustion is a rather layman’s term for the oxidation of carbon, the bonding of carbon with oxygen in an exothermic chemical reaction – exothermic meaning one that releases energy in the form of light and heat. The conditions for spontaneous combustion of carbon are very rare on earth because our typical combustion requires what is referred to as activation energy in other words the spark that starts the flame.

There now exists ample evidence that Homo-Erectus, an ancestor species to modern humans Homo-Sapiens used fire to clear habitats and possibly flush out game for hunting. Many of these may have occurred using naturally occurring fires started by lightning strikes. We are unsure as to when we started (homo-sapiens that is) actively generating combustion for themselves using methods we know today such as rubbing wood or striking flint from rocks, these processes utilize heat through friction. Many other technological advances followed on from this, one of which was cooking which I covered in an earlier article.

For more information on that please read the article kitchen chemistry.

Thanks for reading.

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