Historical View of the Progress of Chemistry

Historical View of the Progress of Chemistry by Humphry Davy is a brief sketch of the history of chemistry contained in the Introduction to The Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812) Part I. Vol. I.; and in the Introduction to Vol. IV of the Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (1840) ed. John Davy.


Introduction to The Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812)
  • A transient view of the progress of chemical philosophy will prove that the most brilliant discoveries, and the happiest theoretical arrangements belonging to it are of very recent origin; and a few historical details and general observations upon the progress and effects of the science will form, perhaps, no improper introduction to the elements of this branch of knowledge.
  • The only processes which can be called chemical, known to the civilized nations of antiquity, belonged to certain arts, such as metallurgy, dyeing, and the manufacture of glass or porcelain; but these processes appear to have been independent of each other, pursued in the workshop alone, and unconnected with general knowledge.
  • The inhabitants of Lower Egypt, where the overflowing of the Nile covered a sandy desert with vegetation and life, might easily adopt the notion, that water, in different modifications, produced all the varieties of inanimate and organized matter; and this dogma characterized the earliest school of Greece.
  • In the beginning of the Macedonian dynasty, the school of Aristotle gave a transient attention to the objects of natural science, but the great founder attempted too many subjects to be able to offer correct views of any one series.—And his erroneous practice, that of advancing general principles, and applying them to particular instances, so fatal to truth in all sciences, more particularly opposed itself to the progress of one [chemistry] founded upon a minute examination of obscure and hidden properties of natural bodies.
  • Theophrastus, the successor of Aristotle, ...says, in the beginning of his book on fossils, 'stones are produced from earth, metals from water.' ...Theophrastus is perhaps the best observer among the ancients, whose works are in our possession, and [his] theories... cannot be considered as an unfavourable specimen of the theoretical physics of the age.
  • [T]he Greeks... possessed, as if instinctively, the perception of everything beautiful, grand, and decorous. As philosophers, they failed not from a want of genius, or even of application, but merely because they pursued a false path,—because they reasoned more upon an imaginary system of nature, than upon the visible and tangible universe.
  • Democritus is quoted by Laertius as having employed himself in processes for imitating gems, and for softening and working ivory. Caligula is said to have made experiments with the view of extracting gold from orpiment.—Dioscorides... has described the process of subliming mercury from its ores.—Even Cleopatra... might be considered as an experimenter, because... she dissolved a pearl in vinegar... but it is idle to relate such circumstances as indications of science.
  • [N]ot even distillation is noticed in the works of Hippocrates or Galen; and... Dioscorides... who probably possessed whatever knowledge was at that time extant in Egypt, recommends the use of a fleece of wool or a sponge, for collecting the products from boiling or burning substances.
  • The origin of chemistry, as a science of experiment, cannot be dated farther back than the seventh or eighth century of the Christian era, and it seems to have been coeval with the short period in which cultivation and improvements were promoted by the Arabians.
  • The first Arabian systematic works on chemistry are said to have been composed by Geber... The preparation of medicines seems to have been the primary object in this study; and Rhases, Avicenna, and Avenzoar, who have described various chemical operations in their works, were the celebrated physicians of the age.
  • [E]early chemical discoveries led to the pursuit of alchemy, the objects of which were to produce a substance capable of converting all other metals into gold: and an universal remedy calculated indefinitely to prolong the period of human life.
  • The processes supposed to relate to the transmutation of metals, and the elixir of life, were probably first made known to the Europeans during the time of the crusades...
  • The public spirit in the West, was calculated to assist the progress of all pursuits that carried with them an air of mysticism. Warm with the ardour of an extending and exalted religion, men were much more disposed to believe than to reason;—the love of knowledge and power is instinctive in the human mind; in darkness it desires light, and follows it with enthusiasm even when appearing merely in delusive glimmerings.
  • The records of the middle ages contain a great variety of anecdotes relating to... pretensions of persons considered as adepts in alchemy... Some of the alchemists were low impostors, whose object was to delude the credulous and the ignorant; others seemed to have deceived themselves with vain hopes; but all followed the pursuit as a secret and mysterious study. The processes were communicated only to chosen disciples, and being veiled in the most enigmatic and obscure language, their importance was enhanced by the concealment.
  • In all times men are governed more by what they desire or fear, than by what they know; and in [the middle ages] it was peculiarly easy to deceive, but difficult to enlighten, the public mind; truths were discovered but they were blended with the false and marvellous; and another era was required to separate them from absurdities, and to demonstrate their importance and uses.
  • Arnald of Villa Nova... was one of the earliest European inquirers who attended to chemical operations. ...[H]e firmly believed in the transmutation of metals; the same opinions are attributed to him and to Geber; and he seems to have followed the study with no other views than those of preparing medicines, and attempting the composition of the philosopher's stone.
  • That the delusions of alchemy were ardently pursued... may be learned from a reference to the public acts... Pope John XXII... openly condemned the alchemists as impostors, and the bull begins by stating, that "they promise what they do not perform;" and in England an act of Parliament was passed in the fifth year of the reign of Henry IV. prohibiting the attempts at transmutation, and making them felonious.
  • In the beginning of the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon of Oxford applied himself to experiment, and his works offer proofs of talents, industry, and sagacity. He was a man of a truly philosophical turn desirous of investigating nature... but neither his labours nor those of Albert of Cologne, his contemporary, who appears to have been a genius of a kindred character, had any considerable influence on the improvement of their age.
  • The wonders performed by the experimental art were attributed by the vulgar to magic; and at a time when knowledge belonged only to the cloister, any new philosophy was... regarded even by the learned with a jealous eye.
  • The first Arabian Alchemists seem to have adopted the idea that the elements were under the dominion of spiritual beings who might be submitted to human power...
  • The speculative ideas of the Arabians were more or less adopted by their European disciples. The Rosicrucian philosophy in which gnomes, sylphs, salamanders, and nymphs were the spiritual agents, supposed capable of being governed or enslaved by man, seems to have originated with the alchemists of this period; and Agrippa, Paracelsus, and their followers... professed to believe in supernatural powers, in an art above experiment, in a system of knowledge not derived from the senses.
  • Paracelsus... deserves... notice from the circumstance of his being the first public lecturer on chemistry in Europe, and from... his application of mercurial preparations to the cure of diseases. The magistrates of Basle established a professor's chair for their countryman, but he soon quitted an occupation in which regularity was necessary, and spent his days in wandering from place to place, searching for, and revealing secrets. He pretended to confer immortality, by his medicines, and yet died at the age of 49...
  • The enthusiasm [of Paracelsus] almost supplied his want of genius. He formed a number of new preparations of the metals, which were studied and applied by his disciples; his exaggerated censure of the methods of the ancients, and of the systems of his day, had an effect in diminishing their popularity; one error was expelled by another; and it is a great step towards improvement, that men should know they have been in delusion.
  • Van Helmont of Brussels... was formed in the school of Alchemy, and his mind was tinctured with its prejudices: but his views concerning nature and the elements were distinguished by much more philosophical acuteness, and more sagacity, than those of any former writer. He is the first person who seems to have had any idea respecting elastic fluids, different from the air of the atmosphere; and he has distinctly mentioned three of these substances, to which he applied the term gases: namely aqueous gas or steam, unctuous or inflammable gas, and gas from wood or carbonic acid gas. Van Helmont developed some accurate views respecting the permanent elasticity of air, and the operation of heat upon it; and a sketch of a curious instrument very similar to the differential thermometer, is to be found in his works.
  • Van Helmont has used a term not so applicable or intelligible as gas, namely, Blas; which he supposed to be an influence derived from the heavenly bodies, of a most subtile and etherial nature; and on the idea of its operations in our terrestrial system, he has endeavoured to found the vindication of astrology.
  • At this period there was no taste in the public mind to restrain vain imaginations. There were no severe critics to correct the wanderings of genius. The systems of logic, adopted in the schools, were founded rather upon the analogies of words than upon the relations of things; and they were more calculated to conceal error, than to discover truth.
  • Till the revival of literature in Europe, there was no attempt at philosophical discussion in any of the sciences; the diffusion of letters gradually brought the opinions of men to the standard of nature and truth; failures in the experimental arts produced caution, and the detection of imposture created rational scepticism.
  • The delusions of Alchemy were exposed by Guibert, Gassendi, and Kepler. Libavius answered Guibert in a tone which demonstrated the weakness of his cause. This person was the last active experimentalist who believed that transmutation had actually been performed; and in the beginning of the 17th century the processes of rational chemistry were pursued by a number of enlightened persons...
  Distilling Aqua fort
Bk 2, Ch. 29, Sculpture 23
Fleta Minor (1683) p. 177.
  • Lord Bacon happily described the Alchemists as similar to those husbandmen who in searching for a treasure supposed to be hidden in their land, by turning up and pulverising the soil, rendered it fertile; in seeking for brilliant impossibilities, they sometimes discovered useful realities; and in speaking of the chemistry of his time, he says, a new philosophy has arisen from the furnaces, which has confounded all the reasonings of the ancients. This illustrious man himself pointed out many important objects of chemical inquiry; but he was a still greater benefactor to the science, by his development of the general system for improving natural knowledge. Till his time there had been no distinct views concerning the art of experiment and observation.
  • Lord Bacon demonstrated how little could be effected by the unassisted human powers, and the weakness of the strongest intellect... without artificial resources. He directed the attention of inquirers to instruments for assisting the senses, and for examining bodies under new relations. He taught that Man was but the servant and interpreter of Nature; capable of discovering truth in no other way but by observing and imitating her operations; that facts were to be collected and not speculations formed; and that the materials for the foundations of true systems of knowledge were to be discovered, not in the books of the ancients, not in metaphysical theories, not in the fancies of men, but in the visible and tangible external world.
  • Though Van Helmont had formed some just notions respecting the properties of air, yet his views were blended with obscure and vague speculations; and it is to the disciples of Galileo that the true knowledge of the mechanical qualities and agencies of elastic fluids is owing. After Torricelli and Pascal had shewn the pressure and weight of the atmosphere, the investigation of its effects in chemical operations became an obvious problem.
  • John Rey is generally quoted as the first person who shewed by experiments that air is fixed in bodies during calcination; but it appears from the work of this acute and learned man that he reasoned upon the processes of others rather than upon his own observations.
    He quotes [Modestinus] Fachsius, Libavius, Cesalpin, and Cardan, as having ascertained the increase of weight of lead during its conversion into a calx, and he mentions an experiment of Hammerus Poppius, who found that antimony calcined by a burning-glass, notwithstanding the loss of vapours, yet was heavier after the process..
  • Rey ridicules the various notions of the Alchemists on the cause of this phenomenon; and ascribes it to the union of air with the metal; he supposes that air is miscible with other bodies besides metals, and states distinctly that it may be expelled from water.
  • The observations of John Rey seem to have excited no attention amongst his contemporaries. The philosophical spirit was only beginning to animate chemistry, and the labourers in this science, occupied by their own peculiar processes, were little disposed to listen to the reasonings of an inquirer in general science; yet, though the most active of the forms of matter were neglected in the processes of the operative chemists of this day, and consequently no just views formed by them, still they discovered a number of important facts respecting the combinations and agencies of solid and fluid bodies.
  • Glauber at Amsterdam, about 1640, made known several neutral salts, and several compounds of metallic and vegetable substances.
  • Kunckel in Saxony and Sweden, pursued technical chemistry with very great success, and was the first person who made any philosophical experiments upon phosphorus, which was accidentally discovered by Brandt in 1669.
  • About the middle of this [17th] century... mathematical and physical investigations were pursued in every part of the civilized world with an enthusiasm before unknown. The new mode of improving knowledge by collecting facts, associated a number labourers in the same pursuit. It was felt that the whole of nature was yet to be investigated... distinct subjects connected with utility... sufficient to employ all enquirers, yet tending to the common end of promoting the progress of the human mind. Learned bodies were formed in Italy, England, and France, for the purpose of the interchange of opinions, the combination of labour and division of expense in performing new experiments, and the accumulation and diffusion of knowledge.
    The Academy del Cimento was established in 1651 under the patronage of the Duke of Tuscany; the Royal Society of London, in 1660; the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris, in 1666.
  • The ardour of scientific investigation was excited and kept alive by sympathy: taste was improved by discussion, and by a comparison of opinions. The conviction that useful discoveries would be appreciated and rewarded, was a constant stimulus to industry, and every field of enquiry was open for the free and unbiassed exercise of the powers of genius.
  • Boyle and Hooke, from their experiments, concluded that air was absolutely necessary to combustion and respiration, and that one part of it only was employed in these processes. And Hooke formed the sagacious conclusion, that this principle is the same as the substance fixed in nitre and that combustion is a chemical process, the solution of the burning body in elastic fluid, or its union with this matter.
    Mayow's apparatus for
burning & ærial collection.
Medico-physical Works
  • Mayow of Oxford, in 1674, published his treatises on the nitro-ærial spirit, in which he advanced opinions similar to those of Boyle and Hooke, and supported them by a number of original and curious experiments; but his work, though marked by strong ingenuity, abounds in vague hypotheses. He attempted to apply the imperfect chemistry of his day to physiology; his failure was complete, but it was the failure of a man of genius.
  • Boyle was one of the most active experimenters, and certainly the greatest chemist of his age. He introduced the use of tests or reagents, active substances for detecting the presence of other bodies: he overturned the [prevalent] ideas... that the results of operations by fire were the real elements of things, and he ascertained... important facts respecting inflammable bodies, acids, alkalies, and the phænomena of combination; but neither he nor any of his contemporaries endeavoured to account for the changes of bodies by any fixed principles.
  • The solutions of the phænomena were attempted either on rude mechanical notions, or by occult qualities, or peculiar subtile spirits or ethers supposed to exist in the different bodies.—And it is to the same great genius who developed the laws that regulate the motions of the heavenly bodies, that chemistry owes the first distinct philosophical elucidations of the powers which produce the changes and apparent transmutations of the substances belonging to the earth.
  • Sugar dissolves in water, alkalies unite with acids, metals dissolve in acids. Is not this, says Newton, on account of an attraction between their particles? Copper dissolved in aquafortis is thrown down by iron. Is not this because the particles of the iron have a stronger attraction for the particles of the acid, than those of copper: and do not different bodies attract each other with different degrees of force?
  • A few years after Newton had brought forwards these sagacious views, the elder Geoffroy endeavoured to ascertain the relative attractive powers of bodies for each other and to arrange them in an order in which these forces which he named affinities were expresed.
  • Chemistry had scarcely begun to assume the form of a science, when the attention of the most powerful minds were directed to other objects of research;—the same great man who bestowed on it its first accurate principles, in some measure impeded its immediate progress, by his more important discoveries in optics, mechanics, and astronomy.
  • These objects of the Newtonian philosophy were calculated by their grandeur, their simplicity, and their importance, to become the study of the men of most distinguished talents; the effect that they occasioned on the scientific mind may be compared to that which the new sensations of vision produce on the blind receiving sight;—they awakened the highest interest, the most enthusiastic admiration, and for nearly half a century, absorbed the attention of the most eminent philosophers of Britain and France.
  • Germany still continued the great school of practical chemistry, and at this period it gained an ascendancy of no mean character over the rest of Europe in the philosophy of the science.
  • Beccher, ...after having studied with minute attention, the operations of metallurgy, and the phænomena of the mineral kingdom, formed the bold idea of explaining the whole system of the earth by the mutual agency and changes of a few elements. And by supposing the existence of a vitrifiable, a metallic, and an inflammable earth, he attempted to account for the various productions of rocks, crystalline bodies, and metallic veins, assuming a continued interchange of principles between the atmosphere, the ocean, and the solid surface of the globe, and considering the operations of nature as all capable of being imitated by art.
  • [Beccher's] Physica subterranea and... Oedipus chemicus... are... extraordinary productions. They display the efforts of a vigorous mind, the conceptions of a most fertile imagination, but the conclusions are too rapidly formed; there is a want of logical precision in his reasonings; the objects he attempted were grand, but his means of execution comparatively feeble. He endeavoured to raise a perfect and lasting edifice upon foundations too weak, from materials too scanty and not sufficiently solid; and the work, though magnificent in design, was rude unfinished and feeble, and rapidly fell into decay.
  • Beccher added very little to the collection of chemical experiments, but he improved the instruments of research, simplified the manipulations, and by the novelty and boldness of his speculations, excited enquiry amongst his disciples.
  • [Beccher's] most distinguished follower was George Ernest Stahl... who soon attained a reputation superior to that of his master, and developed doctrines which for nearly a century constituted the theory of chemistry of the whole of Europe.
  • Albertus Magnus had advanced the idea that the metals were earthy substances impregnated with a certain inflammable principle. Beccher supported the idea of this principle, not only as the cause of metallization, but likewise of combustibility: and Stahl endeavoured, by a number of ingenious and elaborate experiments, to prove the existence of phlogiston... and to explain its agencies in the phænomena of nature and art.
  • Stahl, in operating upon [Glauber's salt], thought he had discovered the proof, that the inflammability not only of metals, but likewise of all other substances, was owing to the same principle [phlogiston]. Charcoal is entirely dissipated or consumed in combustion, therefore, says this philosopher, it must be phlogiston nearly pure; by heating charcoal with metallic earths, they become metals; therefore they are compounds of metallic earths and phlogiston: by heating Glauber's salt, which consists of sulphuric acid and fossil alkali, with charcoal, a compound of sulphur and alkali is obtained; therefore sulphur is an acid combined with phlogiston.
    • Note "fossil alkali" definition from William Campbell Ottley, A Dictionary of Chemistry and of Mineralogy (1826) follows: "Alkali, Fossil. Alkali, Marine. Alkali, Mineral. (See Soda) Soda obtained the names of mineral, fossil, or marine alkali, from its forming a component part of rock salt and sea salt."
  • Stahl entirely neglected the chemical influence of air on these phenomena; and though Boyle had proved that phosphorus and sulphur would not burn without air, and had stated that sulphur was contained in sulphuric acid, and not the acid in sulphur, yet the ideas of the Prussian school were received without controversy.
  • Similar opinions were adopted in France by Homberg and Geoffroy, who... opposed them to the more correct and sagacious views of the English school of chemistry.
  • Though misled in his general notions, few men have done more than Stahl for the progress of chemical science.—His processes were, many of them, of the most beautiful and satisfactory kind: he discovered a number of properties of the caustic alkalies and metallic calces, and the nature of sulphureous acid; he reasoned upon all the operations of chemistry in which gaseous bodies were not concerned, with admirable precision. He gave an axiomatic form to the science, banishing from it vague details, circumlocutions and enigmatic descriptions, in which even Beccher had too much indulged; he laboured in the spirit of the Baconian school, multiplying instances, and cautiously making inductions, and appealing in all cases to experiments which, though not of the most refined kind, were more perfect than any which preceded them.
  • Dr. Hales... resumed the investigations commenced with so much success by Boyle, Hooke, and Mayow; and endeavoured to ascertain the chemical relations of air to other substances, and to ascertain by statical experiments the cases in nature, in which it is absorbed or emitted. ...[B]ut, misled by the notion of one elementary principle constituting elastic matter... he formed few inferences connected with the refined philosophy of the subject...
  • In 1756 Dr. Black published his admirable researches on calcareous, magnesian, and alkaline substances, by which he proved the existence of a gaseous body, perfectly distinct from the air of the atmosphere. He shewed that quicklime differed from marble and chalk by containing this substance, and that it was a weak acid capable of being expelled from alkaline and earthy substances by strong acids.
    Ideas so new and important... were not received without opposition; several German enquirers endeavoured to controvert them.
  • [Johann Friedrich von] Meyer attempted to shew that limestones became caustic, not by the emission of elastic matter, but by combining with a peculiar substance in the fire; but the loss of weight was perfectly inconsistent with this view...
  • Bergman at Upsal, Macbride in Ireland, Keir at Birmingham, and Cavendish in London, demonstrated the correctness of the opinions of Black; and a few years were sufficient to establish his theory upon immutable foundations.
   Henry Cavendish's
hydro-pneumatic apparatus
for Hydrogen collection
  • The knowledge of one elastic fluid different from air, immediately led to the enquiry whether there might not be others.
  • The processes of fermentation which had been observed by the ancient chemists, and those [processes] by which Hales had disengaged and collected elastic substances, were now regarded under a novel point of view; and the consequence was, that a number of new bodies, possessed of very extraordinary properties, were discovered.
  • Mr. Cavendish, about 1765, invented an apparatus for examining elastic fluids confined by water, which has been since called the hydro-pneumatic apparatus. He discovered inflammable air, and described its properties; he ascertained the relative weights of fixed air, inflammable air, and common air, and made... beautiful and accurate experiments on the properties of these elastic substances.
Priestley's pneumatic equipment
  • Whilst a new branch of the science was making this rapid progress in Britain, the chemistry of solid and fluid substances was pursued with considerable zeal and success in France and Germany; and Macquer, Rouelle, Margraff, and [John Henry] Pott, added considerably to the knowledge of fossile bodies, and the properties of the metals.
  • Bergman, in Sweden, developed refined ideas on the powers of chemical attraction, and reasoned in a happy spirit of generalization on many of the new phænomena of the science; and in the same country Scheele, independently of Priestley, discovered several of the same æriform substances; he ascertained the composition of the atmosphere; he brought to light fluoric acid, prussic acid, and the substance which has been improperly called oxymuriatic gas.
  • Black, Cavendish, Priestley, and Scheele, were undoubtedly the greatest chemical discoverers of the eighteenth century; and their merits are distinct, peculiar, and of the most exalted kind. Black made a smaller number of original experiments than either of the other philosophers; but being the first labourer in this new department of the science, he had greater difficulties to overcome.
  • [Black's] methods are distinguished for their simplicity, his reasonings are admirable for their precision; and his modest, clear, and unaffected manner, is well calculated to impress upon the mind a conviction of the accuracy of his processes, and the truth and candour of his narrations.
  • Cavendish was possessed of a minute knowledge of most of the departments of Natural Philosophy: he carried into his chemical researches a delicacy and precision, which have never been exceeded; possessing depth and extent of mathematical knowledge, he reasoned with the caution of a geometer upon the results of his experiments; and it may be said of him, what, perhaps, can scarcely be said of any other person, that whatever he accomplished, was perfect at the moment of its production.
  • [Cavendish's] processes were all of a finished nature; executed by the hand of a master, they required no correction; the accuracy and beauty of his earliest labours even, have remained unimpaired amidst the progress of discovery, and their merits have been illustrated by discussion, and exalted by time.
  • Dr. Priestley began his career of discovery without any general knowledge of chemistry, and with a very imperfect apparatus. His characteristics were ardent zeal and the most unwearied industry. He exposed all the substances he could procure to chemical agencies, and brought forward his results as they occurred, without attempting logical method or scientific arrangement.
  • [Priestley's] hypotheses were usually founded upon a few loose analogies; but he changed them with facility; and being framed without much effort, they were relinquished with little regret.
  • [Priestley] possessed in the highest degree ingenuousness and the love of truth. His manipulations, though never very refined, were always simple, and often ingenious. Chemistry owes to him some of her most important instruments of research, and many of her most useful combinations; and no single person ever discovered so many new and curious substances.
  • Scheele possessed in the highest degree the faculty of invention; all his labours were instituted with an object in view, and after happy or bold analogies. He owed little to fortune or to accidental circumstances; born in an obscure situation, occupied in the duties of an irksome employment, nothing could damp the ardour of his mind or chill the fire of his genius: with very small means he accomplished very great things. No difficulties deterred him from submitting his ideas to the test of experiment. Occasionally misled in his views, in consequence of the imperfection of his apparatus, or the infant state of the inquiry, he never hesitated to give up his opinions the moment they were contradicted by facts.
  • [Scheele] was eminently endowed with that candour which is characteristic of great minds, and which induces them to rejoice as well in the detection of their own errors, as in the discovery of truth. His papers are admirable models of the manner in which experimental research ought to be pursued; and they contain details on some of the most important and brilliant phænomena of chemical philosophy.
  • The discovery of the gasses, of a new class of bodies, more active than any others in most of the phænomena of nature and art, could not fail to modify the whole theory of chemistry. The ancient doctrines were revised; new modifications of them were formed by some philosophers; whilst others discarded entirely all the former hypotheses and endeavoured to establish new generalizations.
  • The idea of a peculiar principle of inflamability was so firmly established in the chemical schools, that even the knowledge of the composition of the atmosphere for a long while was not supposed to interfere with it; and the part of the atmosphere which is absorbed by bodies in burning, was conceived to owe its powers to its attraction for phlogiston.
  • All the modern chemists who made experiments upon combustion, found that bodies increased in weight by burning, and that there was no loss of ponderable matter. It was necessary therefore to suppose, contrary to the ideas of Stahl, that phlogiston was not emitted in combustion, but that it remained in the inflammable body after absorbing gaseous matter from the air.
  • But what is phlogiston? was a question constantly agitated. Inflammable air had been obtained during the dissolution of certain metals, and during the distillation of a number of combustible bodies. This light and subtile matter, therefore, was fixed upon as the principle of inflammability, and Cavendish, Kirwan, Priestley, and Fontana, were the illustrious advocates of this very ingenious hypothesis.
  • In 1774 Bayen shewed that mercury converted into a calx or earth, by the absorption of air, could be revived without the addition of any inflammable substance; and hence he concluded, that there was no necessity for supposing the existence of any peculiar principle of inflammability, in accounting for the calcination of metals.
  • The subject, nearly about the same time was taken up by Lavoisier, who had been for some time engaged in repeating the experiments of the British philosophers. Bayen formed no opinion respecting the nature of the air produced from the calx of mercury. Lavoisier, in 1775, shewed that it was an air which supported flame and respiration better than common air, which he afterwards named oxygene; the same substance that Priestley and Scheele had procured from other metallic substances the year before, and had particularly described.
  • Dr. Black had demonstrated by a series of beautiful experiments, that when gases are condensed, or when fluids are converted into solids, heat is produced. In combustion gaseous matter usually assumes the solid or the fluid form.
  • Oxygene gas, said Lavoisier, seems to be [a] compound of the matter of heat and a basis. In the act of burning, this basis is united to the combustible body, and the heat is evolved. There is no necessity, said this acute philosopher, to suppose any phlogiston, any peculiar principle of inflammability; for all the phænomena may be accounted for without this imaginary existence.
  • Lavoisier must be regarded as one of the most sagacious of the chemical philosophers of the last century; indeed, except Cavendish, there is no other inquirer who can be compared to him for precision of logic, extent of view, and sagacity of induction. His discoveries were few, but he reasoned with extraordinary correctness upon the labours of others. He introduced weight and measure, and strict accuracy of manipulation into all chemical processes. His mind was unbiassed by prejudice; his combinations were of the most philosophical nature; and in his investigations upon ponderable substances, he has entered the true path of experiment with cautious steps, following just analogies, and measuring hypotheses by their simple relations to facts.
  • The doctrine of Lavoisier, soon after it was framed, received some important confirmations from the two grand discoveries of Mr. Cavendish, respecting the composition of water, and nitric acid; and the elaborate and beautiful investigations of Berthollet respecting the nature of ammonia; in which phænomena, before anomalous, were shewn to depend upon combinations of æriform matter.
  • The notion of phlogiston, was however defended for nearly 20 years, by some philosophers in Germany, Sweden, Britain, and Ireland. Mr. Cavendish, in 1784, drew a parallel between the hypothesis, that all inflammable bodies contain inflammable air, and the doctrine in which they are considered as simple substances, in a paper equally remarkable for the precision of the views displayed in it, and for the accuracy and minuteness of the experiments it contains. To this great man, the assumption of M. Lavoisier, of the matter of heat, appeared more hypothetical than that of a principle of inflammability. He states, that the phænomena may be explained on either doctrine; but he prefers the earlier view, as accounting, in a happier manner, for some of the operations of nature.
  • De Morveau, Berthollet, and Fourcroy, in France, and William Higgins and Dr. Hope, in Britain, were the first advocates for the anti-phlogistic chemistry. Sooner or later, that doctrine which is an expression of facts, must prevail over that which is an expression of opinion.
  • The most important part of the theory of Lavoisier was merely an arrangement of the facts relating to the combinations of oxygene: the principle of reasoning which the French school professed to adopt was, that every body which was not yet decompounded, should be considered as simple; and though mistakes were made with respect to the results of experiments on the nature of bodies, yet this logical and truly philosophical principle was not violated; and the systematic manner in which it was enforced, was of the greatest use in promoting the progress of the science.
  • Till 1786, there had been no attempt to reform the nomenclature of chemistry; the names applied by discoverers to the substances which they made known, were still employed. Some of these names, which originated amongst the alchymists, were of the most barbarous kind; few of them were sufficiently definite or precise, and most of them were founded upon loose analogies, or upon false theoretical views.
  • It was felt by many philosophers, particularly by the illustrious Bergman, that an improvement in chemical nomenclature was necessary, and in 1787, Messrs. Lavoisier, Morveau, Berthollet, and Fourcroy, presented to the world a plan for an almost entire change in the denomination of chemical substances, founded upon the idea of calling simple bodies by some names characteristic of their most striking qualities, and of naming compound bodies from the elements which composed them.
  • The new nomenclature was speedily adopted in France; under some modifications it was received in Germany; and after much discussion and opposition, it became the language of a new and rising generation of chemists in England. It materially assisted the diffusion of the antiphlogistic doctrine, and even facilitated the general acquisition of the science; and many of its details were contrived with much address, and were worthy of its celebrated authors: but a very slight reference to the philosophical principles of language will evince that its foundations were imperfect, and that the plan adopted was not calculated for a progressive branch of knowledge.
  • Simplicity and precision ought to be the characteristics of a scientific nomenclature: words should signify things, or the analogies of things, and not opinions. If all the elements were certainly known, the principle adopted by Lavoisier would have possessed an admirable application; but a substance in one age supposed to be simple, in another is proved to be compound; and vice versa. A theoretical nomenclature is liable to continued alterations; oxygenated muriatic acid is as improper a name as dephlogisticated marine acid.
  • Every school believes itself in the right; and if every school assumes to itself the liberty of altering the names of chemical substances, in consequence of new ideas of their composition, or decomposition, there can be no permanency in the language of the science, it must always be confused and uncertain.
  • Bodies which are similar to each other should always be classed together; and there is a presumption that their composition is analogous.
  • Metals, earths, alkalies, are appropriate names for the bodies they represent, and independant of all speculative views; whereas oxides, sulphurets, and muriates, are terms founded upon opinions of the composition of bodies, some of which have been already found erroneous.
  • The least dangerous mode of giving a systematic form to a language, seems to be, to signify the analogies of substances by some common sign affixed to the beginning or the termination of the word. Thus, as the metals have been distinguished by a termination in um, as aurum, so their calciform or oxidated state, might have been denoted by a termination in a, as aura; and no progress, however great, in the science, could render it necessary that such a mode of appellation should be changed.
  • Moreover, the principle of a composite nomenclature must always be very limited. It is scarcely possible to represent bodies consisting of five or six elements in this way, and yet it is in such difficult cases that a name implying a chemical truth would be most useful.
  • The new doctrines of chemistry, before 1795, were embraced by almost all the active experimental enquirers in Europe; and the adoption of a precise mode of reasoning, and more refined forms of experiment, led not only to the discovery of new substances, but likewise to a more accurate acquaintance with the properties and composition of bodies that had long been known.
  • New investigations were instituted with respect to all the productions of nature, and the immense variety of substances in the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdom, submitted to chemical experiments.
  • Cobalt had been used to tinge glass in Saxony in the sixteenth century; but the metal was unknown till the time of Brandt, and this celebrated Swedish chemist discovered it in 1733.
  • The properties of manganese, which was announced as a peculiar metal by Kaim in 1770, were minutely investigated by Scheele and Bergman a few years after.
  • Platina had been brought into Europe and examined by Lewis in 1749 and in 1803, Descotils, Fourcroy, and Vauquelin announced a new metallic substance in it; but the complete investigation of the properties of this extraordinary body was reserved for Messrs. Tennant and Wollaston, who in 1803 and 1804 discovered in it no less than four new metallic substances, besides the body which exists in it in the largest proportion, namely, iridium, osmium, palladium, and rhodium.
  • The attempts made to analyse vegetable substances previous to 1720, merely produced their resolution into the supposed elements of the chemists of those days, namely, salts, Earths, phlegm, and sulphur. Boerhaave and Newmann attempted an examination by fluid menstrua, which was pursued with some success by Rouelle, Macquer and Lewis. Scheele, between 1770 and 1780, pointed out several new vegetable acids.
  • Fourcroy, Vauquelin, Deyeux, Seguin, Proust, Jacquin, and Hermbstadt, between 1780 and 1790, in various interesting series of experiments, distinguished between different secondary elements of vegetable matter, particularly extract, tannin, gums, and resinous substances; and investigations of this kind have been pursued with great success by Hatchett, Pearson, Shraeder, Chenevix, Gehlen, Thomson, Thenard, Chevreul, Kind, Brande, Bostock and Duncan. The chemistry of animal substances has received great elucidations from several of the same enquirers; and Berzelius has examined most of their results, and has added several new ones, in a comprehensive work expressly devoted to the subject, published in 1808.
    • Sources: Jöns Jacob Berzelius, Föreläsningar i Djurkemien [Lectures in Animal Chemistry] , Vol. 1 (1806) Vol. 2 (1808) both in Swedish.
  • Mr. Howard, by an accurate examination of the testimonies... and by a minute analysis of the substances said to have fallen in different parts of the globe... shewed that... meteoric productions differed from any substances belonging to our earth.
  • The circurmstances under which bodies absorb and communicate heat, have been minutely investigated; and the important discoveries of the different physical and chemical powers of the different solar rays, and of a property analogous to polarity in light, bear immediate relation to the most refined doctrines of corpuscular science, and promise to connect by close analogies, the chemical and mechanical laws of matter.
  • A general view of the philosophy of chemistry was published under the name of Chemical Statics, in 1803, by the celebrated Berthollet. It is a work remarkable for the new views that it contains on the doctrines of attraction; views which are still objects of discussion, and which bear an immediate relation to some of the conclusions depending upon very recent discoveries.
  • At the time when the antiphlogistic theory was established, electricity had little or no relation to chemistry. The grand results of Franklin, respecting the cause of lightning, had led many philosophers to conjecture, that certain chemical changes in the atmosphere, might be connected with electrical phænomena;—and electrical discharges had been employed by Cavendish, Priestley, and Vanmarum, for decomposing and igniting bodies; but it was not till the era of the wonderful discovery of Volta, in 1860, of a new electrical apparatus, that any great progress was made in chemical investigation by means of electrical combinations.
  • Nothing tends so much to the advancement of knowledge as the application of a new instrument. The native intellectual powers of men in different times, are not so much the causes of the different success of their labours, as the peculiar nature of the means and artificial resources in their possession. Independent of vessels of glass, there could have been no accurate manipulations in common chemistry: the air pump, was necessary for the investigation of the properties of gaseous matter; and without the Voltaic apparatus, there was no possibility of examining the relations of electrical polarities to chemical attractions.
  • By researches, the commencement of which is owing to Messrs. Nicholson and Carlisle, in 1800, which were continued by Cruickshank, Henry, Wollaston, Children, Pepys, Pfaff, Desormes, Biot, Thenard, Hissinger, and Berzelius, it appeared that various compound bodies were capable of decomposition by electricity; and experiments, which it was my good fortune to institute, proved that several substances which had never been separated into any other forms of matter in the common processes of experiment, were susceptible of analysis by electrical powers; in consequence of these circumstances, the fixed alkalies and several of the earths have been shewn to be metals combined with oxygene; various new agents have been furnished to chemistry, and many novel results obtained by their application, which at the same time that they have strengthened some of the doctrines of the school of Lavoisier, have overturned others, and have proved that the generalizations of the Antiphlogistic philosophers were far from having anticipated the whole progress of discovery.
  • Certain bodies which attract each other chemically, and combine when their particles have freedom of motion, when brought into contact, still preserving their aggregation, exhibit what may be called electrical polarities; and by certain combinations these polarities may be highly exalted; and in this case they become subservient to chemical decompositions; and by means of electrical arrangements the constituent parts of bodies are separated in an uniform order, and in definite proportions.
  • Bodies combine with a force, which in many cases is correspondent to their power of exhibiting electrical polarity by contact; and heat, or heat and light, are produced in proportion to the energy of their combination. Vivid inflammation occurs in a number of cases in which gaseous matter is not fixed; and this phenomenon happens in various instances without the interierence of free or combined oxygene.
  • When one body combines with another in more than one proportion, the second proportion appears to be some multiple or divisor of the first; and this circumstance, observed and ingeniously illustrated by Mr. Dalton, led him to adopt the atomic hypothesis of chemical changes, which had been ably defended by Mr. Higgins in 1789, namely, that the chemical elements consist of certain indestructible particles which unite one and one, or one and two, or in some definite [integer] numbers.
  • Whether matter consists of indivisible corpuscles, or physical points endowed with attraction and repulsion, still the same conclusions may be formed concerning the powers by which they act, and the quantities in which they combine; and the powers seem capable of being measured by their electrical relations, and the quantities on which they act of being expressed by numbers.
  • In combination certain bodies form regular solids; and all the varieties of crystalline aggregrates have been resolved by the genius of Haüy into a few primary forms.
  • The just fame of those who have enlightened the science by new and accurate experiments, cannot fail to be universally acknowledged; and concerning the publication of novel facts there can be but one judgment; for facts are independent of fashion, taste, and caprice, and are subject to no code of criticism; they are more useful perhaps even when they contradict, than when they support received doctrines, for our theories are only imperfect approximations to the real knowledge of things; and in physical research, doubt is usually of excellent effect, for it is a principal motive for new labours, and tends continually to the developement of truth.
  • From the first discovery of the production of metals from rude ores, to the knowledge of the bleaching liquor, chemistry has been continually subservient to cultivation and improvement.
  • In the manufacture of porcelain and glass, in the arts of dying and tanning, it has added to the elegancies, refinement, and comforts of life; in its application to medicine it has removed the most formidable of diseases; and in leading to the discovery of gunpowder, it has changed the institutions of society...
  • It is... a double source of interest in this science, that whilst it is connected with the grand operations of nature, it is likewise subservient to the common processes as well as the most refined arts of life. New laws cannot be discovered in it, without increasing our admiration of the beauty and order of the system of the universe; and no new substances can be made known which are not sooner or later subservient to some purpose of utility.
  • When the great progress made in chemistry within the last few years is considered, and the number of able labourers who are at present actively employed in cultivating the science, it is impossible not to augur well concerning its rapid advancement and future applications. The most important truths belonging to it are capable of extremely simple numerical expressions, which may be acquired with facility by students; and the apparatus for pursuing original researches is daily improved, the use of it rendered more easy, and the acquisition less expensive.
  • Complexity almost always belongs to the early epochs of every science; and the grandest results are usually obtained by the most simple means.
  • A great part of the phaenomena of chemistry may be already submitted to calculation; and there is great reason to believe, that at no very distant period the whole science will be capable of elucidation by mathematical principles.
  • The relations of the common metals to the bases of the alkalies and earths, and the gradations of resemblance between the bases of the earths and acids, point out as probable a similarity in the constitution of all inflammable bodies; and there are not wanting experiments, which render their possible decomposition far from a chimerical idea.
  • It is contrary to the usual order of things, that events so harmonious as those of the system of the earth, should depend on such diversified agents, as are supposed to exist in our artificial arrangements; and there is reason to anticipate a great reduction in the number of the undecompounded bodies, and to expect that the analogies of nature will be found conformable to the refined operations of art.
  • The more the phaenomena of the universe are studied, the more distinct their connection appears, the more simple their causes, the more magnificent their design, and the more wonderful the wisdom and power of their Author.

Quotes about Historical View

  • Humphry Davy's objection to Bacon has not been found. In "Historical View of the Progress of Chemistry" in Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812) Davy cited Bacon's Preface in Instauratio magna in support of his own rejection of Aristotle's "erroneous practice" of advancing general principles for application to particular instances, "so fatal to truth in all sciences". ...In his works Davy typically praised Bacon for his knowledge and novelty...
    • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (2019) Volume 14, p.9, footnote, ed. Kathleen Coburn, Bart Winer.
  • This historical sketch has no pretensions to originality. It is compiled from the best authors, and from the Introduction to Sir H. Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy.
    • John Ayrton Paris, The Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1831) Vol. 2, pp. 415-456, "A General Review of the History of Chemical Science, and the Revolutions Produced in its Doctrines by the Discoveries of Sir Humphry Davy."

See also

  • GoogleBooks (public domain)
  • Archive.org (public domain)
    • Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812) Introduction, Historical View of the Progress of Chemistry.
    • Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (1840) Vol. IV. Elements of Chemical Philosophy.