Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/693

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
677
A HUNDRED YEARS OF CHEMISTRY.

other. These ideas were more than speculation, for they rested upon experiment and led to further experimental research; but they went too far, and therefore could not last. The theory, however, contained much that was true, and the formulæ developed by it gave the first general suggestion of what is now known as chemical structure or constitution. The later study of organic compounds led up to the modern views.

Although Berzelius and many other chemists did some work upon organic compounds, their era was chiefly identified with inorganic researches. Mineral chemistry received a great deal of attention, the relatively simple acids, bases, and salts were studied, but the compounds of carbon were thought to be more complex and received less consideration. To-day, at the close of the century, nearly seventy thousand organic compounds are known, and of these comparatively few were discovered before the year 1830. Since then organic chemistry has been the dominant line of investigation.

Among the earlier chemists of the nineteenth century it was commonly supposed that organic and inorganic matter were radically different, and that the former could only be produced by the operation of a peculiar vital force. To this view there were some dissentients, Berzelius among them, but experimental proof for their contention was lacking. In 1827, however, Wöhler succeeded in transforming the inorganic ammonium cyanate into the organic urea, and the barrier was broken down. The era of synthetic chemistry had begun. Still earlier, in 1823, Liebig had found that silver cyanate and silver fulminate possessed the same percentage composition; in 1825 Faraday discovered an isomer of ethylene; and Wöhler's research now gave a third example of the same kind. Two different substances could contain the same elements in the same proportions, and to explain this fact Berzelius inferred different arrangements of atoms within the molecule, and suggested that their mode of union might be determined. A working theory, however, was still lacking, and without it progress was necessarily slow. The dualistic hypothesis explained the phenomena only in part, and as the known facts increased in number it had to be abandoned.

Two important investigations paved the way for an advance. In 1832 Liebig and Wöhler, studying benzoic acid, found that it and its derivatives contained in common a group of atoms, not isolable by itself, to which they gave the name of benzoyl. The conception of such a group, a compound radicle, already existed, but it lacked clearness, and now for the first time it became truly a scientific idea. The search for, and the identification of, compound