The Chemical Revolution
In 1773, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier described a new nomenclature for chemistry which clarified the distinction between elements and compounds.
“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 on February 20, 1773, a confident Parisian, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, stood poised to forever change the practice and concepts of chemistry. For the next sixteen years, never doubting that his prophecy would be fulfilled, the indefatigable Lavoisier forged a new series of laboratory analyses that would bring order to the chaotic centuries of Greek philosophy and medieval alchemy, leading future generations to regard him as the framer of modern chemistry.
To Lavoisier, it was time “to rid chemistry of every kind of impediment that delays its advance” with a reform that included a new language. Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau, Claude Louis Berthollet, Antoine François Fourcroy, and Lavoisier adopted the long-neglected idea of an element as originally proposed by Robert Boyle more than a century earlier. “We shall content ourselves here with regarding as simple all the substances that we cannot decompose.” They retained the names from the past of many of these simple substances, or elements. But when an element combined with another element, the compound’s name now reflected something about its chemical composition. For example, a calx was the combination of a metal and oxygen; therefore, zinc calx became zinc oxide. Lavoisier and his colleagues predicted that if the new system was “undertaken upon sound principles . . . it will naturally adapt itself to future discoveries.” Withstanding the test of time, the basic system is still in use today.
Lavoisier’s new system of chemistry was laid out for everyone to see in the Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry), published in Paris in 1789. As a textbook, the Traité incorporated the foundations of modern chemistry. It spelled out the influence of heat on chemical reactions, the nature of gases, the reactions of acids and bases to form salts, and the apparatus used to perform chemical experiments.
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Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program