THE word "element" is used by chemists in a peculiar and very limited sense. In calling certain bodies elements, there is no intention on the part of chemists to assert the undecomposable nature or essence of the bodies so called. There is not even an intention on their part to assert that these bodies may not suffer decomposition in certain of the processes to which they are occasionally subjected, but only to assert that they have not hitherto been proved to suffer decomposition; or, in other words, to assert that their observed behavior, under all the different modes of treatment to which they have been exposed, is consistent with the hypothesis of their not having undergone decomposition.
The entire matter of the earth, then, so far as chemists are yet acquainted with it, is composed of some 63 different sorts of matter that are spoken of as elementary; not because they are conceived to be in their essence primitive or elementary, but because, neither in the course of Nature nor in the processes of art, have they been observed to suffer decomposition. No one of them has ever been observed to suffer the loss of any substance different from the substance of its entirety. Thus chemists are incapable of taking away from iron, for example, a something that is not iron; or of taking away from it any thing whatever, so as to leave a residue that is not iron; whereas they are capable of taking away from iron-pyrites a something which is not iron-pyrites but is sulphur, so as to leave a residue which is not iron-pyrites but is metallic iron.
The notion of all other material bodies being constituted of, and decomposable into, a limited number of elementary bodies, which could not themselves be proved to suffer decomposition or mutual transformation under any circumstances whatever, but could, on the contrary, be traced respectively through entire series of combinations, and be extracted at will from each member of the series, is a notion which, undergoing in course of time a gradual development, was first put forward in a definite form by Lavoisier; until whose time, some residue of the great alchemical doctrine of the essential transmutability of all things—that the substance of all things was the same, while the form above was different—still prevailed. To Lavoisier is due the enunciation of the principle—departed from, however, in a few instances by himself that all bodies which cannot be proved to be compounded, are in practical effect, if not in absolute fact, elementary, and are to be dealt with accordingly.
- Lecture before the Royal Institution.