Chemical Revolution

Chemical Revolution

The Chemical Revolution, also called the first chemical revolution, denotes the reformulation of chemistry based on the Law of Conservation of Matter and the oxygen theory of combustion. It was centered on the work of French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (the "father of modern chemistry"). On February 20, 1773, Lavoisier wrote: "the importance of the end in view prompted me to undertake all this work, which seemed to me destined to bring about a revolution in . . . chemistry. An immense series of experiments remains to be made." When he wrote these words in his laboratory notebook, he stood poised to change forever the practice and concepts of chemistry.

Several factors led to this revolution, such as proof that air was not an element but was composed of seven different gases. Chemists such as Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley performed important experiments to prove these facts. Lavoisier also translated chemistry's archaic and technical jargon into language more accessible by the largely uneducated masses. This led to increased public interest in learning and practicing chemistry. When describing the task of reinventing chemical nomenclature, Lavoisier states:

We must clean house thoroughly, for they have made use of an enigmatical language peculiar to themselves, which in general presents one meaning for the adepts and another meaning for the vulgar, and at the same time contains nothing that is rationally intelligible for the one or for the other.

The revolution started with the 1789 publication of Lavoisier's Traite Elementaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry). Beginning with this publication and others to follow, Lavoisier discovered the composition of air and water and coined the term "oxygen". He also explained the theory of combustion, and did away with the phlogiston theory with his views on caloric. The Traite incorporates notions of a "new chemistry" and describes the experiments and reasoning that led to Lavoisier's conclusions. In sum, Lavoisier's Traite did for chemistry what Newton's Principia did for physics.

Additionally, Lavoisier’s contemporary Jöns Jakob Berzelius came up with a simplified shorthand to describe chemical compounds based on John Dalton's theory of atomic weights .

In the chemical revolution, modern chemists disproved facts that had been theorized by the Ancient Greeks and accepted ever since. For example, chemists began to denote that all structures were composed of more than four elements.


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