People were using principles of chemistry thousands of years ago. The ancient Egyptians, for example, used chemistry to develop materials for embalming and mummifying their dead. Early farmers discovered that animal waste helped plants grow and developed the first fertilizers. But chemistry as modern scientists know it didn’t exist until the 17th and 18th centuries.
- In 430 BC, Democritus of Greece said that the atom is the simplest unit of matter.
- From 300 BC to the 1500s, alchemists tried to turn ordinary materials into gold. They also searched for a serum that could cure disease and make people live longer – or forever. Alchemists called this the Elixir of Life.
- Robert Boyle wrote an important book, The Skeptical Chymist, in 1661 which discussed chemistry as separate from alchemy. This book disproved Aristotle’s theories and marked the end of the study of alchemy.
- Antoine Lavoisier discovered the law of conservation and mass in 1783.
- John Dalton published his Atomic Theory in 1803, which states that matter is composed of small and indivisible atoms.
- In 1897, Marie Curie discovered uranium and thorium. She also discovered radium and polonium, and received two Nobel Prizes for her work.
Embalm: to treat a body to slow or prevent decay
Animal waste: manure
Alchemy: the study of the natural world to gain wisdom; in particular, alchemists wanted to learn the secrets of making gold and prolonging life
Disprove: prove something to be untrue
Q and A
Question: How did the early scientists make their discoveries?
Answer: The same way scientists do today – through research, study, and experiment. Many discoveries occur by accident or unexpectedly.
To learn more about events in chemistry history, visit Columbia University.
Head over to Nautilus to learn about an eccentric early inventor.