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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/691

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A HUNDRED YEARS OF CHEMISTRY.

other chemists before him; but the fact was disputed by Berthollet, and its verity was not established until 1808. Dalton went a step further, and found that to every element a definite combining number could be assigned, and that when two elements united in more than one proportion even multiples of that number appeared. Thus, taking the hydrogen weight as unity, oxygen always combines with other elements in the proportion of eight parts or some simple multiple thereof, and so on through the entire list of elementary bodies. Each one has its own combining weight, and this was the law for which Dalton sought an adequate explanation. Fractions of the weights did not appear, fractional atoms could not exist; the two thoughts were connected by Dalton. Chemical union, to his mind, became a juxtaposition of atoms, whose relative weights were indicated by their combining numbers, and so the atomic conception for the first time was given quantitative expression. The facts were co-ordinated, the special laws were combined in one general theory, and the mere suppositions of other men were supplanted by a precise statement, which is a corner stone of chemistry to-day. The doctrine led at once to investigations, it rendered possible the discovery of new truth, chemical formulæ and chemical equations were developed from it; without its aid the growth of chemical science would probably have been slow. The nature of the atoms may be in doubt, they may be divisible or indivisible, but the value of the theory is independent of such considerations. It gives adequate expression to known laws, and it can only be set aside, if ever, by absorption into some wider and deeper generalization.

The same year which saw the completion of Dalton's theory (1807) was also signalized by the remarkable discoveries of Sir Humphry Davy, who decomposed the alkalies and proved them to be compounds of metals. In 1810 chlorine, which was previously thought to be a compound, was proved to be elementary, and this fact was emphasized a year later by the discovery of iodine. These researches gave precision to the conception of an element, and prepared the way for later investigations upon many other oxides. All the so-called "earths"—lime, magnesia, alumina, and so on—were now seen to be oxy-compounds of metals, and an intelligent interpretation of all forms of inorganic matter became possible. The first step in the chain of research was the discovery of oxygen itself; from that, and from the teachings of Lavoisier, the later discoveries logically followed.

While the investigations of Dalton and of Davy were still incomplete, other chemists were actively studying the properties of gases and exploring the fertile border-land between chemistry and