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Discoveries of the chemical elements

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The story of the discoveries of the chemical elements is presented here in chronological order. The elements are listed generally in the order in which they were first isolated as the pure element, rather than as a compound (some such as boron were known to be elements decades before they could be isolated from their compounds). The first few predate any written record.

Name Date Discoverer
Carbon antiquity Unknown
Gold antiquity Unknown
Silver antiquity Unknown
Copper antiquity Unknown
Sulfur antiquity Unknown
Tin antiquity Unknown
Lead antiquity Unknown
Mercury antiquity Unknown
Iron antiquity Unknown

Although Aluminium may have been isolated in Roman times (see Aluminium#History), its isolation is usually credited to Hans Christian Ørsted in 1825, and is listed under that date.

Arsenic 1250 Albertus Magnus is believed to have been the first to isolate the element.
Antimony 1450 First described scientifically by Tholden
Bismuth 15th century? May have been described in writings attributed to Basil Valentinus, definitively identified by Claude Geoffroy Junine in 1753
Zinc 1526 Identified as a unique metal by Paracelsus
Phosphorus 1669 Hening Brand, later described by Robert Boyle
Cobalt 1732 Georg Brandt

Platinum had been noticed in South American gold ore since the 16th century. A number of chemists worked on platinum in the 18th century:

Name Date Discoverer
Platinum ca. 1741 Discovered independently by Antonio de Ulloa (published 1748) and Charles Wood.
Nickel 1751 Axel Fredrik Cronstedt
Magnesium 1755 Joseph Black

Priestley's work on atmospheric gases resulted in his preparation of oxygen. As he was a believer in phlogiston, he didn't realise that he had prepared a new element, and thought that he had managed to prepare air free from phlogiston ("de-phlogisticated air"). However, he was the first to isolate oxygen, even if he didn't realise what he had:

Name Date Discoverer
Oxygen 1771 Joseph Priestley
Nitrogen 1772 Daniel Rutherford
Chlorine 1774 Carl Wilhelm Scheele
Manganese 1774 Johan Gottlieb Gahn
Hydrogen 1776 Isolated and described by Henry Cavendish, named by Antoine Lavoisier
Molybdenum 1778 Carl Wilhelm Scheele
Tellurium 1782 Franz-Joseph Müller von Reichenstein
Tungsten 1783 Juan José Elhuyar and Fausto Elhuyar

The recent discovery of the new planet Uranus by William Herschel had caused a stir, so the newly discovered metallic element was christened uranium in its honour.

Name Date Discoverer
Uranium 1789 Martin Heinrich Klaproth
Zirconium 1789 Martin Heinrich Klaproth
Strontium 1793 Martin Heinrich Klaproth
Yttrium 1794 Johan Gadolin
Titanium 1797 Martin Heinrich Klaproth
Chromium 1797 Louis Nicolas Vauquelin
Beryllium 1798 Louis Nicolas Vauquelin
Vanadium 1801 Andrés Manuel del Río
Niobium 1801 Charles Hatchett discovered as Columbium
Tantalum 1802 Anders Gustaf Ekeberg

The next element was discovered just after the discovery of a new class of astronomical objects: the new element was named after the newly discovered asteroid, Ceres. The element was discovered nearly simultaneously in two laboratories, though it was later shown that Berzelius and Hisinger's cerium was actually a mixture of cerium, lanthanum and didymium.

Name Date Discoverer
Cerium 1803 Martin Heinrich Klaproth; Jöns Jakob Berzelius and Hisinger
Rhodium 1803 William Hyde Wollaston
Palladium 1803 William Hyde Wollaston
Osmium 1803 Smithson Tennant
Iridium 1803 Smithson Tennant

At this point, Sir Humphry Davy pioneered the use of electricity from the Voltaic pile to decompose the salts of alkali metals, and so a number of those metals were first prepared as the pure element: the beginning of the field of electrochemistry.

Name Date Discoverer
Potassium 1807 Humphry Davy
Sodium 1807 Humphry Davy
Calcium 1808 Humphry Davy
Barium 1808 Humphry Davy
Boron 1808 Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac & Louis-Jacques Thenard
Iodine 1811 Bernard Courtois
Lithium 1817 Johan August Arfwedson
Cadmium 1817 Friedrich Strohmeyer Independently discovered by K.S.L Hermann
Selenium 1817 Jöns Jakob Berzelius
Silicon 1823 Jöns Jakob Berzelius
Aluminium 1825 Hans Christian Ørsted (may have been isolated in Roman times, see Aluminium#History)
Bromine 1826 Antoine Jérôme Balard
Thorium 1828 Jöns Jakob Berzelius
Beryllium 1828 Friedrich Wöhler. Independently discovered by A.A.B. Bussy

The next element discovered when Mosander showed that the cerium isolated in 1803 by Berzelius was actually a mixture of cerium, lanthanum and so-called didymium (which was not actually one element, and was resolved into two in 1885).

Name Date Discoverer
Lanthanum 1839-41 Carl Gustaf Mosander
Terbium 1843 Carl Gustaf Mosander
Erbium 1843 Carl Gustaf Mosander
Ruthenium 1844 Karl Klaus

Spectroscopic discoveries

A number of elements were first identified by their spectroscopic emission lines: caesium and rubidium were discovered by Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff analysing the spectrum of alkali salts. The unknown element with blue emission lines was named caesium; in purifying the salts of this new element, another element was discovered with a red emission line; this was called rubidium. They were shortly afterwards prepared as the pure salts by Bunsen. The bright green line of thallium caused it to be named from the Greek thallos, meaning a green shoot, and the indigo-blue line from certain specimens of zinc-blende gave the name indium to the new element so discovered:

Name Date Discoverer
Caesium 1860 Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchoff
Rubidium 1860 Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchoff
Thallium 1861 Sir William Crookes
Indium 1863 Ferdinand Reich and Theodor Richter

Another spectroscopic discovery, helium was found by astronomers as an emission line in the spectrum of the sun, hence its name from the Greek helios meaning sun. It was at first thought to be an unknown metallic element, and so the name was given the ending -ium to signify a metal. By the time it had been found on Earth and discovered to be the lightest of the noble gases, the name was fixed; by analogy with the other noble gases, the name should have ended in -on.

Name Date Discoverer
Helium 1868 Independently by Pierre Jansen and Norman Lockyer

The Periodic table and the prediction of new elements

In 1871, Mendeleev predicted, from the gaps in his newly-devised periodic table, that there should be three as yet undiscovered elements, which he named eka-boron, eka-aluminium, and eka-silicon. With Mendeleev's prediction of their existence and approximate chemical properties, the missing elements were found by French, Scandinavian, and German chemists, and named for their countries of discovery, as gallium, scandium, and germanium:

Name Date Discoverer
Gallium 1875 Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran
Ytterbium 1878 Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac
Thulium 1879 Per Teodor Cleve
Scandium 1879 Lars Fredrik Nilson
Holmium 1879 Marc Delafontaine, Jacques-Louis Soret and Per Teodor Cleve
Samarium 1879 Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran
Gadolinium 1880 Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac

The 'didymium' isolated by Mosander in 1839 was shown to actually be two separate elements, praseodymium and neodymium:

Name Date Discoverer
Praseodymium 1885 Carl Auer von Welsbach
Neodymium 1885 Carl Auer von Welsbach
Dysprosium 1886 Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran
Germanium 1886 Clemens Winkler
Fluorine 1886 Joseph Henri Moissan

Refrigeration technology advanced considerably during the 19th century, to the point where it was possible to liquefy atmospheric gases. A curious observation was made: Nitrogen prepared by chemical means from its compounds had a slightly lower molecular weight than nitrogen prepared by liquefaction from air. This was attributed as being due to the presence of a previously unsuspected gas, christened argon. This gas was the first representative found of a previously unsuspected new group in the periodic table, first known as the inert gases, now more commonly known as the noble gases.

Name Date Discoverer
Argon 1894 Lord Rayleigh & Sir William Ramsay

Once liquid argon could be prepared in quantity from air, small amounts of a further three noble gases could be separated from it by differences in boiling point. These new elements were named from the Greek words for, respectively, 'new', 'hidden', and 'foreign'.

Name Date Discoverer
Neon 1898 Sir William Ramsay
Krypton 1898 Sir William Ramsay
Xenon 1898 Sir William Ramsay

With the discovery of radioactivity, we have the classic work by the Curies that isolated a number of previously unknown elements:

Name Date Discoverer
Radium 1898 Pierre Curie and Maria Sklodowska-Curie
Polonium 1898 Pierre Curie and Maria Sklodowska-Curie

Another of the noble gases, radon had avoided discovery because its short radioactive half-life had meant it was present in air in vanishingly tiny quantities. Once radium was available in macroscopic quantities, the production of this radioactive noble gas was readily detected as a product of radium's radioactive decay.

Name Date Discoverer
Radon 1898 Friedrich Ernst Dorn who called it nitron
Actinium 1899 André-Louis Debierne
Europium 1901 Eugene Demarcay
Lutetium 1907 Georges Urbain
Protactinium 1917 Kasimir Fajans, O. Göhring, Fredrich Soddy, John Cranston, Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn
Hafnium 1923 Dirk Coster
Rhenium 1925 Walter Noddack and Ida Tacke

At this point, all the stable elements existing on earth had been discovered, and most of the periodic table had been filled. A few gaps remained amongst the higher mass elements, but there remained a troublesome gap at element number 43, just below manganese in the table. The gaps were filled by the synthetic elements. Walter Noddack and Ida Tacke (later Ida Noddack) also believed to have found Technetium, which they called Masurium (after Masurien, an area in Germany). They were later proved wrong.

The synthetic elements

The so-called "synthetic" elements are unstable, with half-lives so "short" relative to the age of the earth that any atoms of that element that may have been present when the earth formed have long since completely decayed away. Hence they are only known on earth as the product of nuclear reactors, particle accelerators, or in the byproducts from nuclear explosions. The discovery of technetium finally filled in a puzzling gap in the periodic table, and the discovery that there were no stable isotopes of technetium explained its absence on earth: its 4.2 million years half-life meant that none remained from the time of formation of the earth.

Name Date Discoverer
Technetium 1937 Carlo Perrier
Francium (natural) 1939 Marguerite Derey

All elements after this are synthetic:

Name Date Discoverer
Astatine 1940 Dale R. Corson, K.R.Mackenzie, Emilio Segrè

The next two elements were the first of the transuranic (beyond uranium) elements and were named after the planets beyond Uranus, Neptune and Pluto:

Name Date Discoverer
Neptunium 1940 E.M. McMillan & Philip H. Abelson, University of California, Berkeley
Plutonium 1941 Glenn T. Seaborg, Arthur C. Wahl, Joseph W. Kennedy, Emilio Segrè
Curium 1944 Glenn T. Seaborg
Americium 1945 Glenn T. Seaborg
Promethium 1945 J.A. Marinsky
Berkelium 1949 Albert Ghiorso, Glenn T. Seaborg, Stanley G. Thompson, Kenneth Street Jr.
Californium 1950 Albert Ghiorso, Glenn T. Seaborg, Stanley G. Thompson, Kenneth Street Jr.
Einsteinium 1952 Argonne Laboratory, Los Alamos Laboratory, and University of California
Fermium 1953 Argonne Laboratory, Los Alamos Laboratory, and University of California
Mendelevium 1955 Glenn T. Seaborg, Evans G. Valens
Nobelium 1958 Albert Ghiorso, Glenn T. Seaborg, John R. Walton and Torbørn Sikkeland
Lawrencium 1961 Albert Ghiorso, Torbjorn Sikkeland, Almon Larsh and Robert M. Latimer
Rutherfordium 1964 Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna, U.S.S.R.
Dubnium 1970 Albert Ghiorso
Seaborgium 1974 Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and University of California, Berkeley
Bohrium 1976 Y. Oganessian et al, Dubna and confirmed at GSI (1982)
Meitnerium 1982 Peter Armbruster and Gottfried Münzenberg, GSI
Hassium 1984 Peter Armbruster and Gottfried Münzenberg
Darmstadtium 1994 S. Hofmann, V. Ninov et al, GSI
Roentgenium 1994 S. Hofmann, V. Ninov et al, GSI
Ununbium 1996 S. Hofmann, V. Ninov et al, GSI
Ununquadium 1999 Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna
Ununhexium 2001 Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna
Ununtrium 2004 Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Ununpentium 2004 Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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