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III. Inorganic Chemistry

Inorganic chemistry is concerned with the descriptive study of the elements and their compounds, except those of carbon. Reference should be made to the separate articles on the different elements and the more important compounds for their preparation, properties and uses. In this article the development of this branch of the science is treated historically.

The earliest discoveries in inorganic chemistry are to be found in the metallurgy, medicine and chemical arts of the ancients. The Egyptians obtained silver, iron, copper, lead, zinc and tin, either pure or as alloys, by smelting the ores; mercury is mentioned by Theophrastus (c. 300 B.C.). The manufacture of glass, also practised in Egypt, demanded a knowledge of sodium or potassium carbonates; the former occurs as an efflorescence on the shores of certain lakes; the latter was obtained from wood ashes. Many substances were used as pigments: Pliny records white lead, cinnabar, verdigris and red oxide of iron; and the preparation of coloured glasses and enamels testifies to the uses to which these and other substances were put. Salts of ammonium were also known; while alum was used as a mordant in dyeing. Many substances were employed in ancient medicine: galena was the basis of a valuable Egyptian cosmetic and drug; the arsenic sulphides, realgar and orpiment, litharge, alum, saltpetre, iron rust were also used. Among the Arabian and later alchemists we find attempts made to collate compounds by specific properties, and it is to these writers that we are mainly indebted for such terms as “alkali,” “sal,” &c. The mineral acids, hydrochloric, nitric and sulphuric acids, and also aqua regia (a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids) were discovered, and the vitriols, alum, saltpetre, sal-ammoniac, ammonium carbonate, silver nitrate (lunar caustic) became better known. The compounds of mercury attracted considerable attention, mainly on account of their medicinal properties; mercuric oxide and corrosive sublimate were known to pseudo-Geber, and the nitrate and basic sulphate to “Basil Valentine.” Antimony and its compounds formed the subject of an elaborate treatise ascribed to this last writer, who also contributed to our knowledge of the compounds of zinc, bismuth and arsenic. All the commonly occurring elements and compounds appear to have received notice by the alchemists; but the writings assigned to the alchemical period are generally so vague and indefinite that it is difficult to determine the true value of the results obtained.

In the succeeding iatrochemical period, the methods of the alchemists were improved and new ones devised. Glauber showed how to prepare hydrochloric acid, spiritus salis, by heating rock-salt with sulphuric acid, the method in common use to-day; and also nitric acid from saltpetre and arsenic trioxide. Libavius obtained sulphuric acid from many substances, e.g. alum, vitriol, sulphur and nitric acid, by distillation. The action of these acids on many metals was also studied; Glauber obtained zinc, stannic, arsenious and cuprous chlorides by dissolving the metals in hydrochloric acid, compounds hitherto obtained by heating the metals with corrosive sublimate, and consequently supposed to contain mercury. The scientific study of salts dates from this period, especial interest being taken in those compounds which possessed a medicinal or technical value. In particular, the salts of potassium, sodium and ammonium were carefully investigated, but sodium and potassium salts were rarely differentiated.[1] The metals of the alkaline-earths were somewhat neglected; we find Georg Agricola considering gypsum (calcium sulphate) as a compound of lime, while calcium nitrate and chloride became known at about the beginning of the 17th century. Antimonial, bismuth and arsenical compounds were assiduously studied, a direct consequence of their high medicinal importance; mercurial and silver compounds were investigated for the same reason. The general tendency of this period appears to have taken the form of improving and developing the methods of the alchemists; few new fields were opened, and apart from a more complete knowledge of the nature of salts, no valuable generalizations were attained.

The discovery of phosphorus by Brand, a Hamburg alchemist, in 1669 excited chemists to an unwonted degree; it was also independently prepared by Robert Boyle and J. Kunckel, Brand having kept his process secret. Towards the middle of the 18th century two new elements were isolated: cobalt by G. Brandt in 1742, and nickel by A. F. Cronstedt in 1750. These discoveries were followed by Daniel Rutherford’s isolation of nitrogen in 1772, and by K. Scheele’s isolation of chlorine and oxygen in 1774 (J. Priestley discovered oxygen independently at about the same time), and his investigation of molybdic and tungstic acids in the following year; metallic molybdenum was obtained by P. J. Hjelm in 1783, and tungsten by Don Fausto d’Elhuyar; manganese was isolated by J. G. Gahn in 1774. In 1784 Henry Cavendish thoroughly examined hydrogen, establishing its elementary nature; and he made the far-reaching discovery that water was composed of two volumes of hydrogen to one of oxygen.

The phlogistic theory, which pervaded the chemical doctrine of this period, gave rise to continued study of the products of calcination and combustion; it thus happened that the knowledge of oxides and oxidation products was considerably developed. The synthesis of nitric acid by passing electric sparks through moist air by Cavendish is a famous piece of experimental work, for in the first place it determined the composition of this important substance, and in the second place the minute residue of air which would not combine, although ignored for about a century, was subsequently examined by Lord Rayleigh and Sir William Ramsay, who showed that it consists of a mixture of elementary substances—argon, krypton, neon and xenon (see Argon).

The 18th century witnessed striking developments in pneumatic chemistry, or the chemistry of gases, which had been begun by van Helmont, Mayow, Hales and Boyle. Gases formerly considered to be identical came to be clearly distinguished, and many new ones were discovered. Atmospheric air was carefully investigated by Cavendish, who showed that it consisted of two elementary constituents: nitrogen, which was isolated by Rutherford in 1772, and oxygen, isolated in 1774; and Black established the presence, in minute quantity, of carbon dioxide (van Helmont’s gas sylvestre). Of the many workers in this field, Priestley occupies an important position. A masterly device, initiated by him, was to collect gases over mercury instead of water; this enabled him to obtain gases previously only known in solution, such as ammonia, hydrochloric acid, silicon fluoride and sulphur dioxide. Sulphuretted hydrogen and nitric oxide were discovered at about the same time.

Returning to the history of the discovery of the elements and their more important inorganic compounds, we come in 1789 to M. H. Klaproth’s detection of a previously unknown constituent of the mineral pitchblende. He extracted a substance to which he assigned the character of an element, naming it uranium (from Οὐρανός, heaven); but it was afterwards shown by E. M. Péligot, who prepared the pure metal, that Klaproth’s product was really an oxide. This element was investigated at a later date by Sir Henry Roscoe, and more thoroughly and successfully by C. Zimmermann and Alibegoff. Pitchblende attained considerable notoriety towards the end of the 19th century on account of two important discoveries. The first, made by Sir William Ramsay in 1896, was that the mineral evolved a peculiar gas when treated with sulphuric acid; this gas, helium (q.v.), proved to be identical with a constituent of the sun’s atmosphere, detected as early as 1868 by Sir Norman Lockyer during a spectroscopic examination of the sun’s chromosphere. The second discovery, associated with the Curies, is that of the peculiar properties exhibited by the impure substance, and due to a constituent named radium. The investigation of this substance and its properties (see Radioactivity) has proceeded so far as to render it probable that the theory of the unalterability

  1. The definite distinction between potash and soda was first established by Duhamel de Monceau (1700–1781).