The invention of the Periodic Table

(Who created the periodic table first)

Michiel Bester | 5 January 2021
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The invention of the periodic table in a nutshell:

In 1869 Dmitri Mendeleev created the first variation of the periodic table as we know it today. He was the first person to arrange the elements by increasing atomic mass and leave spaces open for the elements that had not yet been discovered.


A brief history of the periodic table of elements: Infographic

A brief history of the periodic table: Infographic
Why the history of the periodic table matters:

The history of the periodic table is a fascinating story, and a perfect example of how “good things take time”. By reflecting on the development process of arguably the most important table known to man, we can learn a lot about what to do (and what not to do) if mankind wanted to invent similar wonderful things in the future.


It might just be impossible to list every single contribution that was made towards the development of the periodic table, but in this article, we highlight the most important and interesting turn of events in the advent of the periodic table.


Who created the periodic table first?

In the 16th and 17th centuries scientists were fascinated with the properties of different materials. As more elements were slowly being discovered, scientists began to move away from the antient Greek idea of an element as an abstract substance with properties, to a more modern idea of the elements as the smallest building blocks of the universe. This left open a few important questions that would keep scientists around the world busy for centuries to come. How many elements are there? Is there a natural law by which the elements can be arranged?


Scientists of the 16th and 17th century were prepared to do anything to determine the answers to these vital questions.



1669 -
The German merchant and amateur alchemist, Hennig Brand, attempted to create a Philosopher’s stone. Like many others who failed, so did Brand, but little did he know that his actions would earn him a spot in the history books of science. He boiled a pot of urine for days, until the process produced a mysterious glowing substance which was extremely flammable. He was one of the first people to discover phosphorus.

The beginning:

1789 -
Antoine Lavoisier, a French nobleman and chemist, compiled a list of thirty-three elements. Arguably the first element table to be created. Many of the elements on his list are no longer regarded as elements.


1801 -
John Dalton began to build on the work of Lavoisier and a German chemist, Jeremias Benjamin Richter. He published his work, which become the beginning of the modern atomic theory, where he estimated the relative weights of elements.


1809 -
Alexander von Humboldt and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac discovered diatomic molecules, which challenged parts of Dalton's theories.


1813 -
Swedish chemist, Jöns Jacob Berzelius, first introduced the use of letter symbols to represent chemical elements. This approach seems only logical now, but at the time was a wonderful innovation.


1817 -
The German chemist, Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, discovered the existence of groups of elements with similar chemical properties. He called these groups “traids”.


1862 -
Alexandre-Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois, a French geologist, was the first person to discover that similar elements appear periodically. He created a three-dimensional spiral, by engraving the elements around a metal cylinder. The telluric screw plotted the elements by increasing atomic weight, so that one complete turn corresponded to an atomic weight increase of 16. With his arrangement, elements with similar chemical properties appeared in a vertical line.


In the same year Lothar Meyer created two element tables, of which one consisted of twenty-eight elements arranged in order of increasing atomic weight.


1863 -
An English chemist, John Newlands, divides the then known 56 elements into 11 groups based on chemical properties. Newlands noticed that there were similarities between elements with atomic weights that differed by eight or some multiple of eight. He called this system The Law of Octaves, drawing a comparison with the octaves of music. Newlands did not leave any gaps for undiscovered elements in his table, and sometimes had to cram two elements into one box to keep the pattern. The Royal Society of Chemistry refused to publish his papers, due to the unorganized nature of his table, with one Professor saying he might have equally listed the elements alphabetically.


1868 -
In an update to his textbook, Lothar Meyer created a table that listed the elements in order of atomic weight, where elements with the same valency were arranged in vertical lines. He even left gaps for the elements that had not yet been discovered at the time, which is strikingly like the model built by Mendeleev only one year later. Unfortunately for Meyer, the table was not included in the latest publication of his book and was only published several years later, after his death in 1895.

Who created the modern periodic table?

1869 -
The Russian chemist, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, created the first variation of the periodic table as we know it today. On the 17th of February 1869, Mendeleev decided to cancel a trip to a cheese factory, to work on his periodic table. That night he listed the symbols of the elements on the back of his invitation to the cheese factory, until he had sketched out an entire periodic table of elements. The real genius of Mendeleev’s creation was the way he left gaps for undiscovered elements and extremely accurately predicted their existence and properties. At the time there were only sixty-three known elements and Mendeleev correctly predicted the discovery of several more. His table even corrected the atomic weights of existing elements and relocated others to their correct positions on the periodic table. His periodic table was announced on the 6th of March 1869 at a meeting of the Russian Chemical Society.


1894 -
Sir William Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh discovered the first noble gas, Argon. The gas did not seem to fit into Mendeleev’s table and troubled scientists for six years, until it was finally realised to be further proof of the existing periodic table system, fitting in as the final group on the periodic table.


1913 -
Six years after Mendeleev’s death, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. The English physicist, Henry Moseley, finally determined why some of the elements on Mendeleev’s table did not fit into its predicted groups. When Moseley started arranging the elements by atomic number rather than atomic weight the framework of the modern periodic table was in place.


1932 -
James Chadwick discovered the neutron. The discovery of the neutron quickly changed scientists’ view of the atom, and Chadwick was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1935 for the discovery.


1945 -
The American chemist, Glenn T. Seaborg, suggested the classification of Lanthanides and Actinides (atomic numbers > 92), which are usually placed below the periodic table.


2016 -
Four new elements were added to the periodic table, element 113 to 118.

The future:

Scientists believe that it would be possible to create element 119 and 120 and see no reason why we wouldn’t be able to go beyond that. Who knows, maybe element 119 will be named after you.

The lessons:

Humans have an extraordinary capability of discovering and inventing, but we could be so much more efficient if we worked together. In the 1860’s at least 5 chemists were working on the same problem of creating a periodic table of elements. If only two of these brilliant minds came together and shared their knowledge, we might have made this world changing scientific invention years before Mendeleev stumbled unto it in 1869.

References:

E Scerri 2011, The Evolution of the Periodic System, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-evolution-of-the-periodic-system/

N Jahromi 2019, Histories Hidden in The Periodic Table, https://www.newyorker.com/science/elements/the-histories-hidden-in-the-periodic-table

J Yeston, N Desai, E Wang, 2019, Setting The Table (A brief visual History of the Periodic Table),https://vis.sciencemag.org/periodic-table/