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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/689

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A HUNDRED YEARS OF CHEMISTRY.

A HUNDRED YEARS OF CHEMISTRY.
By F. W. CLARKE,

CHIEF CHEMIST, UNITED STATES GEOLOGICAL SURVEY.

IT is hardly an exaggeration to say that chemistry, as a science, is the creation of the nineteenth century. Chemical facts, indeed, were known even in remote antiquity; some principles were dimly anticipated long before the century began; Boyle had given the first rational definition of an element; the principal gases had been discovered; great foundations were laid, ready for the superstructure. But the making of bricks is not architecture, nor does the accumulation of details constitute a science. The scattered facts are needful preliminaries, but only with the discovery of laws and the development of broad generalizations does true science begin.

That truth can be born from error may seem paradoxical, but, nevertheless, the statement is exact. False hypotheses stimulate investigation, and so truth comes at last to light. In the history of chemistry this principle is clearly illustrated. During the eighteenth century the doctrine of phlogiston was generally accepted; this led to exhaustive researches upon combustion, and from these the science of chemistry received its present shape. Becher and Stahl had taught that every combustible substance contained a combustible principle—phlogiston—and that to the elimination of this principle the phenomena of combustion were due. According to this theory, a metal was regarded as a compound of its calx, or oxide, with phlogiston; hydrogen became a compound of water with phlogiston, and so the truth was curiously inverted. The doctrine was vigorously and ingeniously defended, and, although it was overthrown by Lavoisier, it had persistent supporters even after the present century began.

The weak point of the phlogistic theory was its practical disregard of the phenomena of weight. That the calx weighed more than the metal was well known, but quantitative considerations were subordinated to those of quality, and the form of matter was studied rather than its mass.

In 1770 the scientific career of Lavoisier began, and the balance became a chief instrument in chemical research. The constancy of weight during chemical change was experimentally established, and what had been a philosophical speculation—the increatability and indestructibility of matter—became a doctrine of science, a datum of knowledge instead of a hypothetical belief. In 1774 Priestley and Scheele independently discovered oxygen, and with