History of chemistry

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Depending on one's perspective on the defining province of chemistry, one might trace the history of chemistry as far back as the emergence of our species, or even to earlier times in our ancestral hominin lineage.

Where should we begin? Did chemistry come into being when practical information began to be acquired and transmitted? In that case we have to start with prehistoric times, with the first techniques for making and controlling fire, the first processes for dyeing cloth and fermenting wine, and the first pharmacopoeias. Or does it begin with the first elements of rational knowledge? In that case it must start with the pre-Socratic philosophers and the earliest atomic and elemental theories. If our story begins with the link between theory and practice, alchemy must be the starting point. If a "history of chemistry" should be limited to that chemistry clearly identified as a science, the seventeenth century is the necessary origin.[1]


Fire is the earliest and most surprising chemical discovery.
   — William Cecil Dampier[2]

Scholars who give us accounts of their version of the history of chemistry tend naturally to bias their accounts with the perspective of chemistry as a distinct, isolable science of a part of the natural world, what we call a scientific discipline. Yet we find chemistry in the form of transformations and interactions of matter everywhere we look, as astronomers, geologists, physicists, biologists, physicians, painters, chefs, you name it. As the "central science",[3] chemistry sits at the central hub of the sciences it reduces to and those it underpins, which include all the natural sciences. A history of chemistry must recognize that and integrate it into its account.

Primatologist Richard Wrangham argues that the controlled use of fire, for cooking and for protection from nocturnal predators, began between 1.9 and 1.8 million years ago, with the emergence of Homo erectus, a hominin species in the ancestral lineage of Homo sapiens.[4] If the argument holds, we may claim that ancestral humans practiced the chemistry of cooking and burning combustible materials nearly 2 million years ago, and give that date as a starting point for a history of chemistry.

Archaic Homo sapiens, perhaps as early as 200,000 years ago, undoubtedly experienced earth in its variety of textures and colors; experienced air in its manifestations as wind, in its various states of humidity; experienced fire as something to fear and perhaps to use; and, water, as rain, sweat and dew, as potable or not, as wet, as thirst-quenching, as something precious. Sometime during the course of hominin evolution, those experiences became conscious experiences, coupled with the ability to think symbolically through gesticulation and vocalization. Then those experienced aspects of our prehistoric ancestors' chemical environment likely became important topics of discussion.

In the earliest written records of thinkers giving thought to issues modern chemists would recognize as a theoretical chemistry, earth, air, fire, and water figure as central fundamentals in the development of a coherent science of chemistry, however unrecognized as such, and however primitive, incorrect, and absent experimental support in the beginning. Those early thinkers were the ancient Greek philosophers beginning in the 7th century BCE.

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  1. Bensaude-Vincent B, Stengers I. (1996) A History of Chemistry. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674396593. Originally published as Histoire de la chimie (1993), Editions La Découverte. Translated to English by Deborah van Dam.| Google Books preview.
  2. Dampier WC. (1949) A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Brown TL, LeMay Jr HE, Bursten BE, Murphy CJ. (2009) Chemistry: The Central Science, Eleventh Edition. Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-600617-6. | Preview book online.
  4. Wrangham RW. (2009) When Cooking Began. In: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Chapter 4. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 9780465013623. | Did Cooking Give Humans An Evolutionary Edge? National Public Radio Interview with Richard Wrangham about his book and the origin of fire use for cooking, audio and transcript.