Chemical Revolution

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Geoffroy's 1718 Affinity Table: at the head of each column is a chemical species with which all the species below can combine. Some historians have defined this table as being the start of the chemical revolution.[1]

The chemical revolution, also called the first chemical revolution, denotes the early modern reformulation of chemistry that culminated in the Law of Conservation of Matter and the oxygen theory of combustion. During the 19th and 20th century this transformation was credited to the work of French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (the "father of modern chemistry").[2] Recent work on the history of early modern chemistry, however, treats the Chemical Revolution more as changes in chemical theory and practice that emerged over two centuries.[3] Like the Scientific Revolution, which played out over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Chemical Revolution took place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[4]

Several factors led to this revolution. First, there were the forms of gravimetric analysis that emerged from alchemy and new kinds of instruments that were developed in medical and industrial contexts. In these settings, 'chemists, increasingly challenged hypotheses that had been proffered by the ancient Greeks. For example, they began to assert that all structures were composed of more than the four elements of the Greeks or the eight elements of the medieval alchemists. The Irish alchemist, Robert Boyle, laid the foundations for the Chemical Revolution, with his mechanical corpuscular philosophy, which in turn relied heavily on the alchemical corpuscular theory and experimental method dating back to pseudo-Geber.[5]

Add to these the new experimental techniques the discovery of 'fixed air' (carbon dioxide) by Joseph Black in the middle of the 18th century. The latter discovery was particularly important because it empirically proved that 'air' was not monolithic and established 'gas' as an important experimental substance. Nearer the end of the 18th century the experiments by Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley further that proved air was not an element but was composed of several different gases. Lavoisier also translated the names of chemical substance into a new nomenclatural language more appealing to scientists of the nineteenth century. Such changes took place in an atmosphere in which the Industrial Revolution increased public interest in learning and practicing chemistry. When describing the task of reinventing chemical nomenclature, Lavoisier attempted to harness the new centrality of chemistry by making the rather hyperbolic claim that:[6]

The latter stages of the revolution was fuelled by the 1789 publication of Lavoisier's Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry). Beginning with this publication and others to follow, Lavoisier synthesised the work of others and coined the term "oxygen". He also explained the theory of combustion, and challenged the phlogiston theory with his views on caloric. The Traité incorporates notions of a "new chemistry" and describes the experiments and reasoning that led to his conclusions. Like Newton's Principia, which was the high point of the Scientific Revolution, Lavoisier's Traité can be seen as the culmination of the Chemical Revolution.

Lavoisier's work was not immediately accepted and it took several decades for it gain momentum.[7] This transition was aided by the work of Jöns Jakob Berzelius, who came up with a simplified shorthand to describe chemical compounds based on John Dalton's theory of atomic weights.


  1. ^ Kim, Mi Gyung (2003). Affinity, That Elusive Dream: A Genealogy of the Chemical Revolution. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-11273-4. 
  2. ^ The First Chemical Revolution – the Instrument Project, The College of Wooster
  3. ^ Matthew Daniel Eddy, Seymour Mauskopf, and William R. Newman (2014). "An Introduction to Chemical Knowledge in the Early Modern World". Osiris: 1–15. 
  4. ^ Matthew Daniel Eddy, Seymour Mauskopf and William R. Newman (Eds.) (2014). Chemical Knowledge in the Early Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  5. ^ Ursula Klein (July 2007). "Styles of Experimentation and Alchemical Matter Theory in the Scientific Revolution". Metascience (Springer) 16 (2): 247–256 [247]. doi:10.1007/s11016-007-9095-8. ISSN 1467-9981. 
  6. ^ Jaffe, B. (1976). Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry from Alchemy to Nuclear Fission (4th ed.). New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 978-0-486-23342-0. 
  7. ^ Eddy, Matthew Daniel (2008). The Language of Mineralogy: John Walker, Chemistry and the Edinburgh Medical School 1750-1800. Ashgate. 

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