Skip to Content

The Beginning of Chemistry

The Beginning of Chemistry

The History of Chemistry started with the roots of civilization, about 40,000 years ago.  Gold (Au), Copper (Cu), Silver (Ag), Mercury (Hg), and a few other elements were found naturally occurring.  We find evidence of humans collecting, shaping, and forming these small beads and nuggets often found in rivers and streams—or in the case of mercury, in the deserts.

The next evidence is in the form of pottery, about 20,000 years ago.  To make pottery, you need two ingredients: Clay, and Heat.  Heat required burning (oxidation) of wood, coal, or other combustibles. 

This means geology (the study of what the Earth is made from) is integral to understanding the history of chemistry. 

The actual use and study of chemistry almost always involves heat.  Heat allows us to shape, change, study and modify what we see.  In some of the earliest evidence of men learning about the elements around them, we see that once making pottery was common, and specialized kilns were made to heat the clays for the potters, rocks “melted” to find new substances like lead (Pb), tin (Sn) and iron (Fe). 

Please note that all of the elements we’ve listed up to this point, have Two-letter names on the Periodic Table of the elements that don’t seem to relate to the English words.  That’s because they don’t: The two-letter designation comes from the Latin for these oldest known elements.

“Gold” in English was “Arum” in Latin
“Silver” in English was “Argentum” in Latin
“Copper” in English was “Cuprum” in Latin
“Mercury” in English was “Hydragyrum” in Latin
“Iron” in English was “Ferrum” in Latin
“Lead” in English was “Plumbum” in Latin
“Tin” in English was “Stannum” in Latin

Clay is chemically a mixture of three chemicals: Aluminum (in the form AlO4) and Silicon (in the form SiO4) and Oxygen which is the “O4“ although none of these elements were known in ancient times—certainly clay was known.  Chemistry starts with understanding clay.  Clay forms in microscopic sheets (similar to the rock-like substance “mica”) which allows the particles to “slide” past one another, yet unlike mica, when clay slides around, it also is bound together by the water molecules.  Then, when the water is removed by drying, firing, or heating it hot enough, it holds its shape indefinitely.   

The first chemists would have probably been potters, or perhaps the metal workers.  Clays are naturally occurring deposits of dissolved rocks.  The rocks themselves would have been eroded by acidic materials (like water) or volcanic-created liquids (like sulphuric acid.)  Because these clay deposits would have likely contained various contaminants, they would sometimes act, or appear, differently while the potter would use them.  The most striking changes were physical.  Some clays turned yellow, others red, and a few might be black or even white.  Each clay was contaminated with differing naturally occurring substances—and the potter wanted to control his art.  A natural curiosity would cause the potter to wonder why one clay would produce one color, and another a different color.  This would have been the beginning of discovery—the beginning of chemistry.