Who First Discovered Carbon?

The first civilizations known to have made use of carbon were the Sumerians and Egyptians, who used charcoal as a smokeless fuel and for smelting metal ores. Later recorded uses of charcoal for medicinal purposes were found in Egyptian and Greek texts dating back to between 1500 and 400 B.C. In 1772, the French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, demonstrated that diamonds were a form of carbon.

Between 1779 and 1786, Carl Wilhelm Scheele in Swedish Pomerania, and Berthollet, Monge and Vandermonde in France, demonstrated that graphite, or "pencil lead," was mostly carbon. It was not until 1789, however, that the element was named and listed as "carbon" in a textbook written by Lavoisier.

New and exotic forms of carbon, or allotropes, were introduced beginning in 1985 with the discovery of buckminsterfullerene, or C60, and its associated forms including nanotubes and buckyballs. This discovery earned its three discoverers, R. Curl, H. Kroto and R. Smalley, the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. C60 was recently noted as the largest molecule found in outer space and is believed to be created within evolved stars.

In terms of abundance, carbon ranks as fourth in the universe. It ranks 15th in the category of elements contained in the Earth's crust. The best-known allotropes of carbon are diamond, graphite and amorphous carbon, which includes soot and charcoal.