Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/420

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

himself as an adherent of the new doctrine of types. After his habilitation at Heidelberg, which followed in 1856, came the essay on fulminating mercury, in which the view so important for the future was expressed, that to the three typical combinations of chlorhydrogen, water, and ammonia, hitherto recognized, might be added a fourth, marsh gas. In the next essay, on binary combinations and the theory of polyatomic radicals, he put forward the conception of mixed types, and first reached the knowledge of various atomicity or valency of the radicals. These researches were continued, and there appeared shortly afterward, in the spring of 1858, the two great treatises which have since exercised so powerful an influence on chemistry—that on the constitution and metamorphoses of chemical combinations, and that on the chemical nature of carbon. In these theses Kekulé passed from the valency of the radicals to that of the elements themselves, and showed that the composition of all those compounds that contain one atom of carbon lead to the conclusion that that element is quadrivalent; and that, further, the relations of combination of a complex of carbon atoms are explainable if we suppose that the latter are mutually bound by a certain number of their four unities of attraction. This idea was suggested very carefully, and the words which the author added at the end of his essay read very curiously to-day: 'Finally, I think I ought still to insist that I attach only little value to speculations of this sort. Since one delving in chemistry must once in a while, in the lack of exact scientific principles, content himself with probabilities and temporary hypotheses, it seems proper to communicate these conceptions, because, as it appears to me, they furnish a simple and fairly general expression for the newest discoveries, and because, therefore, the use of them may assist in the discovery of new facts.' How diffident the words sound, and how far have the expectations been exceeded! We all know that the theory of valency is to-day the leading guide through all our science; and, although another investigator had a share in its origination, no one disputes that its main foundation and its eminent value in organic chemistry are primarily due to Kekule's idea of the quadrivalency of carbon.

"After he was called to the University of Ghent, in 1858, Kekulé exhibited an indefatigable activity. He began the great series of investigations of the organic acids which, beginning with succinic acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid, and extending afterward to many others, have given complete conclusions as to the nature of these bodies. Contemporaneously, in 1860, appeared the first number of the Lehrbuch der organischen Chemie, which was soon followed by other numbers, so that the whole first volume was completed in 1861. All his fellow-chemists who are acquainted with the events of that period