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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/698

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least since 1865, Kekulé's conception of the benzene ring has been the guiding clew, and it is certain that without the theory the practice would have advanced much more slowly. Out of research for its own sake has come an enrichment of the world, which in any previous age would have been inconceivable.

The atomic theory, while replacing speculation in one sense, stimulated it in another. The human mind is always striving to get back of the known, to see what lies beyond the limits of visibility, and the conception of an element with its atomic weight opened up a field for the exercise of the imagination. What is an element ultimately? was an early question to ask. Are the elements really diverse, or do they manifest but one fundamental kind of matter? To such queries the atomic weights offered a promising line for investigation, and more than one mind began traveling along it. In 1815 Prout put forth the supposition that all atomic weights were even multiples of that assigned to hydrogen, and over this hypothesis a long warfare has raged. To-day it is practically abandoned by chemists, but the controversy which it provoked led to some of the most accurate investigations in the history of science, and so served to give precision to our knowledge. Without the instigation of Prout's hypothesis, which hinted at hydrogen as the ultimate form of matter, we might have been content with inferior determinations of atomic weight, and chemistry, as an exact science, would have suffered.

In due time, however, it was perceived that the elements could be arranged in groups, the members of each group having similar properties and forming similar compounds. Serial relations, analogous to those discovered among organic compounds, became manifest, and much thought was expended in seeking to trace out their meaning. The classification of the elements was more and more seen to be important, and regularities came to light which at first were unsuspected. Still, no general law, no one guiding principle, could be found so long as the old system of weights and formulæ was retained in common usage.

The adoption of Cannizzaro's atomic weights and the establishment of the theory of valence made possible a new attack upon the problem of classification. In 1864 Newlands arranged the elements in the order of their atomic weights, and showed that at regular intervals there was a periodic recurrence of certain characteristics. This observation, which foreshadowed the periodic law, was received with indifference and, to some extent, with ridicule, but the path had been found which soon led to a great discovery. In 1869 Mendelejeff published his celebrated memoir, and the periodic law took its place as a distinct addition to science. Almost