Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/August 1872/On the Discovery of the Elements

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By WILLIAM ODLING, Esq., M. B., F. R. S.,


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.

Of the many definite substances known to chemists before the discovery of hydrogen gas, the following were afterward recognized by Lavoisier and his colleagues as elementary: First, the seven metals known to the ancients, namely, gold, silver, mercury, copper, iron, tin, and lead, distinguished respectively by the signs of the sun, moon, and planets; and each conceived to have some mystic connection with the particular orb or planet of which it bore the sign, and not unfrequently the name. Then three metals which became known at the latter end of the fifteenth or beginning of the sixteenth century, namely, antimony, discovered by Basil Valentine in 1490; bismuth, mentioned by Agricola, 1530; and zinc, mentioned by Paracelsus, obiit 1541. An elementary character was also assigned to the non-metals carbon and sulphur, which had been known from the earliest times; to phosphorus, discovered by Brandt, of Hamburg, in 1669; and to boracic acid, now known to be a hydrated oxide of boron, first discovered by Homberg in 1702, and still occasionally spoken of as Homberg's sedative salt. The list was further swollen by four metals which, in Lavoisier's time, had been but recently discovered, namely, cobalt and arsenic, identified simultaneously in 1733 by George Brandt, of Stockholm; platinum, discovered in 1741 by Woods, assay-master at Jamaica; and nickel, discovered in 1751 by Cronstedt.

The only other bodies known before 1766, and afterward included in the class of elements, namely, the alkalies and earths, had during the quarter of a century immediately preceding been made the subjects of especial study. The differentiation of potash from soda, both previously known by the common name of alkali, was indicated by Duhamel in 1736, and more completely established by Marggraf in 1758. The differentiation from one another of lime or calcareous earth, silex or vitrefiable earth, alumina or argillaceous earth, and magnesia or bitter earth, was accomplished by the labor of many chemists, more particularly Marggraf, Bergmann, and Scheele; prior to whose researches, silex, alumina, and magnesia, together with their different combinations and commixtures with each other and with lime, were held to be but impure varieties of lime. The nature of the difference between the caustic alkalies and earths and their respective carbonates was made known by Black in 1756; while the real constitution of the alkalies and earths, as metallic oxides, though suspected by Lavoisier, was not established until the beginning of the present century, by Davy and his contemporaries and followers.

The successive recognition of the elementary gases, quickly following Black's remarkable discovery of carbonic-acid gas, began with the identification of hydrogen by Cavendish in 1766. This was succeeded by the discovery of nitrogen by Rutherford in 1772; of chlorine and fluoric acid, the latter now held to be a fluoride of hydrogen, by Scheele in 1774; and of oxygen by Priestley in the same year.

Thus prior to the discovery of the first of the elementary gases, 23 kinds of solid matter, and one liquid body, mercury, were known, which afterward became recognized as elements. Between then and the present time, 33 kinds of solid matter, and one liquid body, bromine, have been added to the list—the discovery of the earliest of them occurring almost simultaneously with, or even just preceding, that of the last discovered of the elementary gases.

Among the number of bodies discovered prior to 1803, when Davy effected the decomposition of the alkalies, several, at first thought to be elementary, are now known to be compounds of oxygen with other bodies still regarded as elements; and conversely, two bodies, namely, chlorine and fluorine, at one time thought to be oxides, have since become regarded as elementary; but in none of these cases did the discovery of what is now considered to be the real constitution of the bodies add or subtract an element to or from the list.

From the period of the modern or Lavoiserian conception of elements and compounds down to the beginnnig of the nineteenth century, the recognition of new elements occurred with much frequency at short but varied intervals. After then, the discoveries became somewhat less frequent; but, even within the last 50 years, no fewer than 12 new elements have been added to the list, being at the rate of one new element every four years. Throughout, the periods of discovery have been somewhat irregular in their occurrence. Thus, in the years 1802 and 1803, six new elements were discovered, namely, tantalum, cerium, palladium, rhodium, iridium, and osmium; within the succeeding 14 years only one new element, but that a very important one, namely, iodine; and in the fifteenth and sixteenth years, three new elements, namely, lithium, selenium, and cadmium. The longest barren interval, one of 13 years' duration, took place between the discovery of niobium, by Rose, in 1846, and that of csesium and rubidium, by Bunsen, in 1859. The last discovered of the elements, namely, indium, being fully seven years old, and there being no reason to consider our present list as any thing like complete, or to apprehend any cessation of additions thereto, it is now quite time for some other new element to be made known. For we may reasonably anticipate the discovery of new elements to take place at irregular intervals possibly for centuries to come, and our list of the elements to be increased at least as much in the future as in the past.

The fresh discovery, however, of any abundant elementary constituent of the earth's crust would seem scarcely now to be expected, seeing that of the 32 elements which have become known since the year 1774—the year of the discovery of chlorine and oxygen and manganese and baryta—the great majority belong to the class of chemical curiosities; while even the four or five most abundant of the since discovered elements are found to enjoy but a sparing, although wide distribution in Nature, as is the case, for example, with bromine and iodine; or else to be concentrated but in a few specially-localized minerals, as is the case, for example, with strontium and chromium, and tungsten. Of course it is difficult to appraise the relative abundance in Nature of different elements; more especially from the circumstance of those which are put to commercial uses being everywhere sought for, and those not put to commercial uses being habitually neglected—save indeed by the man of science, to whom the peculiar properties of some of the less familiarly known elements, as palladium, osmium, erbium, didymium, uranium, and thallium, render them objects of the highest interest.

A very notable point with regard to the last-discovered four elements, namely, rubidium, cæsium, thallium, and indium, is their successive discovery within a few years of each other, by one and the same process, namely, that of spectrum analysis. This process, invented and made available as a means of chemical research by Bunsen and Kirchhoff in 1859, consists simply in allowing the light given off by different ignited gases and vapors, limited by means of a fine slit, to pass through a prism or succession of prisms; and in observing the so-produced, brightly-colored, widely-extended image of the slit. It has been known from the days of Newton, that, by the passage of heterogeneous light through a prismatic, highly-dispersive medium, its differently refrangible constituents become widely separated from each other, so as to furnish an elongated, colored spectrum. But, whereas the spectra of incandescent solid and liquid bodies are continuous, and not distinctive of the particular luminous bodies yielding them, the spectra of incandescent, gaseous, or vaporized bodies, are found to be discontinuous, and to consist of one or more bright lines of different color, thickness, and position, according to the nature of the particular incandescent gases or vapors from which the light through the slit is proceeding. In this way it is found that the spectra of the different chemical elements, alike when free and in combination, are perfectly definite, and characteristic of the particular elements vaporized and made incandescent.[2] And, in many cases, the spectra, or portions of the spectra of particular elements, even when present in the most minute proportion, are so extremely well marked and distinctive, that the presence or absence of these elements is determinable with the greatest ease and certainty, by a mere inspection of the emission spectra yielded by the incandescent gases or vapors under examination. Moreover, gases and vapors are further capable of affecting heterogeneous light which is passed through them; and of thus yielding absorption spectra, in which the characteristic lines of the above-described emission spectra are reversed, so as to appear, unaltered in position, as black lines or intervals in an otherwise continuous band of color.

Now, the salts of the alkali-metals, lithium, sodium, and potassium, and certain of the salts of the alkaline-earth metals, calcium, strontium, and barium, being very readily volatile, upon heating these salts, in the non-luminous flame of a Bunsen gas-burner for example, they undergo vaporization, and their vapors become incandescent and capable of yielding the characteristic emission spectra of the particular metals. In examining in this way the alkali-salt residue of a mineral water from Durkheim, Bunsen observed in the spectrum before him certain colored lines not belonging to any one of the then known alkalies, potash, soda, or lithia; and yet necessarily belonging to some substance having the general characters of an alkali, since all other bodies than alkalies had been previously removed from the residue under examination. In full reliance upon the certainty of this conclusion, Bunsen evaporated some forty tons of the water in question; and from the alkali-salt residue succeeded in extracting and separating salts of two new alkali-metals, each characterized by a well-marked pair of lines in the blue or indigo, and one of them having in addition a pair of well-marked lines of extremely small refrangibility in the red of the spectrum. From its yielding those red lines, the one metal was named rubidium; the other, of which the bright-blue lines were especially characteristic, being called cæsium.

The very general distribution in Nature of these two elements was speedily established, and salts of each of them were, with much labor, eventually prepared in a state of purity and in reasonable quantity. From certain of their respective salts the metals themselves were obtained by the usual processes, and, together with their salts, were submitted to detailed chemical examination. And no sooner was this examination made, than the position of the newly-discovered elements, as members of the alkali-metal family, at once became apparent. Rubidium and cæsium were found in all their properties to present the most striking analogy to potassium, and evidently to stand to this metal in the same relation that strontium and barium respectively stand to calcium; while they differed from sodium, much as strontium and barium respectively differ from magnesium. This relationship in obvious properties was further borne out by the relationship of their atomic weights, thus:

Mg 24  .. ..  Na 23   F 19  .. ..  O 16
Ca 40  .. ..  K 39 Cl 35 .5  .. ..  S 32
Sr 87  .. ..  Rb 85 Br 80  .. ..  Se 79
Ba 137  .. ..  Cs 133 I 127  .. ..  Te 129

It is observable that the sequence of atomic weight in the thus completed alkali-metal family is strictly parallel to the previously well-known sequences in the alkali-earth metal family, and in the halogen and oxygen families respectively. Moreover, just as the basylity of the alkaline-earth metals increases in the order of their several atomic weights—calcium being less basylous than strontium, and far less basylous than barium—so also is the basylity of potassium inferior to that of rubidium, and the basylity of rubidium inferior to that of cæsium, which is indeed the most powerfully basylous, or oxidizable, or electro-positive element known.

Since 1860, both rubidium and cæsium have been recognized as minute constituents of a considerable number of minerals and mineral waters, rubidium having been met with for the most part in a larger proportion by weight than cæsium. Unlike potash, originally known as vegetable alkali, cæsium has not been recognized in the vegetable kingdom; but rubidium has been found as a very common, minute constituent of vegetable ashes, as those of beet-root, oak-wood, tobacco, grapes, coffee, tea, etc. On the other hand, cæsium, free from rubidium, has been found in a tolerably well-known, though rare, mineral from the island of Elba, to the extent of 32 per cent. by weight of the mineral. The history of this mineral is curious: from the circumstance of its always occurring in association with another mineral, a variety of petalite, the two were called Castor and Pollux. Castor was found to be substantially a silicate of alumina and lithia; pollux a silicate of alumina, and, as it was thought, of potash. The constituents of pollux, namely, silica, alumina, and potash, with small proportions of ferric oxide, lime, soda, and water, were duly estimated; but the quantities of these constituents, found in 100 parts of the mineral, instead of amounting to 100 parts or thereabouts, amounted only to 88 parts, there being somehow a loss of 12 per cent, in the analysis. After Bunsen's discovery of the new alkali-metals, pollux was analyzed afresh by Pisani, who soon perceived that what had formerly been taken for potash, and estimated as potash, was not potash at all, but cæsia. Then calculating out his own analysis with cæsia instead of potash, substituting the one for the other in the proportion of 1338, or 141 parts of cæsia, for 398, or 47 parts of potash, he found that the quantities of the different constituents furnished by 100 parts of the mineral yielded by their addition the full sum of 100 parts required.

In submitting to spectroscopic examination a certain residue left by the distillation of some impure selenium, Mr. Crookes, early in 1861, recognized in the spectrum before him a brilliant-green line, from which he inferred the presence in the above residue of a new element; and by the end of the same year he had succeeded in establishing the tolerably wide distribution of this element, to which he gave the name of thallium; in procuring it, though but in small quantity, in a separate state; and in satisfying himself of its metallic character. Soon afterward, and without knowledge of Mr. Crookes's later results, the metal was obtained by M. Lamy, on a comparatively large scale, and was exhibited by him in the form of small ingots at the London Exhibition of 1862. He procured it from the fine dust met with in some oil-of-vitriol factories, as a deposit in the flues leading from the pyrites burners to the leaden chambers. In these deposits, the minute proportion of thallium contained originally in the pyrites becomes concentrated, so as to form in some instances as much as eight per cent, by weight of the dust. Independently, moreover, of its occurrence in iron pyrites, thallium, though never forming more than a minute constituent of the different minerals and mineral waters in which it occurs, is now known to be capable of extraction from a great number and variety of sources. But from no other source is it so advantageously procurable as from the above-mentioned flue-deposit; and so early as the autumn of 1863, at the meeting of the British Association in Newcastle, the then mayor, Mr. J. Lowthian Bell, exhibited several pounds, and Mr. Crookes no less than a quarter of a hundred-weight of thallium obtained from this comparatively prolific source. In one respect, the discovery of thallium presented even a greater degree of interest than attached to the discovery of cæsium and rubidium. For whereas these two elements were at once recognized as analogues of the well-known metal potassium, thallium can hardly be said, even at the present time, to be definitely and generally recognized by chemists as the analogue of any particular metal, or as a member of any particular family of elements. With each of such differently characterized elements as potassium, lead, aluminum, silver, and gold, it is associated by certain marked points of resemblance; while from each of them it is distinguished by equally well-marked points of difference. Hence the necessity for subjecting thallium and its salts to a thorough chemical examination, so as to accumulate a well-ascertained store of facts with regard to it. And, thanks to the careful labors of many chemists, more particularly of Mr. Crookes, in London, and of Messrs. Lamy and Willm, in Paris, our knowledge of the properties of thallium and of its salts may compare not unfavorably with our similar knowledge in relation to even the longest known of the metallic elements. Still, it was not until our knowledge of indium had culminated in the determination of its specific heat, only last year, that the position of thallium, as an analogue of indium and a member of the aluminum family of elements, became unmistakably evident.

Indium was first recognized in 1863, by Drs. Reich and Richter, in the zinc blende of Freiberg, in Saxony, and by reason of the very characteristic spectrum afforded—consisting of two bright-blue or indigo bands; the brightest of them somewhat more refrangible than the blue line of strontium, and the other of them somewhat less refrangible than the indigo line of potassium. Since its first discovery, indium has been recognized in one or two varieties of wolfram, and as a not unfrequent constituent of zinc-ores, and of the metal obtained therefrom, but always in a very minute proportion. Indeed, indium would appear to be an exceedingly rare element, far more rare than its immediate predecessors in period of discovery. Its chief source is metallic zinc—that of Freiberg, smelted from the ore in which indium was first discovered, containing very nearly one-half part of indium, per one thousand parts of zinc. A considerable quantity of indium extracted from this zinc, was shown in the Paris Exhibition of 1867; and an ingot from the Freiberg Museum, weighing two hundred grammes, or over seven ounces, has within the last few days been kindly forwarded by Dr. Richter himself, for inspection on the present occasion. To Dr. Schuchardt, of Goerlitz, also, the members of the Institution are indebted for his loan of nearly sixty grammes of metallic indium; and of fine specimens of other rare chemical products, prepared with his well-known skill, in a state of great purity and beauty.

When zinc containing indium is dissolved not quite completely in dilute sulphuric or muriatic acid, the whole of the indium originally present in the zinc is left in the black spongy or flocculent residue of undissolved metal, with which every one who has prepared hydrogen gas by means of zinc and acid is so well acquainted. Besides some zinc, this black residue is found to contain lead, cadmium, iron, and arsenic, less frequently copper and thallium, and in some cases, as that of the Freiberg zinc, a small proportion of indium. From the solution of this residue in nitric acid, the indium is separated by ordinary analytical processes, based chiefly on the precipitability of its sulphide by sulphuretted hydrogen from solutions acidulated only with acetic acid, and on the precipitability of its hydrate both by ammonia and carbonate of barium. From its soluble salts, metallic indium is readily thrown down in the spongy state by means of zinc. The washed sponge of metal is then pressed together between filtering-paper, by aid of a screw press, and finally melted under a flux of cyanide of potassium.

Thus obtained, indium is a metal of an almost silver-white color, apt to become faintly bismuth-tinted. It tarnishes slowly on exposure to air, and thereby acquires very much the appearance of ordinary lead. Like lead, it is compact and seemingly devoid of crystalline structure. Moreover, like lead and thallium, it is exceedingly soft, and readily capable of furnishing wire, by the process of "squirting" or forcing. The specific gravity of indium, or 7.4, is very close to that of tin, or 7.2; and much above that of aluminum, 2.6, and below that of lead, 11.4, and that of thallium, 11.9. In the lowness of its melting-point, namely, 176° C, indium occupies an extreme position among the metals permanent in air; the next most fusible of these metals, namely, tin and cadmium, melting at 228°; bismuth at 264°; thallium at 294°; and lead at 235°. Though so readily fusible, indium is not an especially volatile metal. It is appreciably less volatile than the zinc in which it occurs, and far less volatile than cadmium. Heated as far as practicable in a glass tube, it is incapable of being raised to a temperature sufficiently high to allow of its being vaporized, even in a current of hydrogen.

Indium resists oxidation up to a temperature somewhat beyond its melting-point, but at much higher temperature it oxidizes freely; and at a red heat it takes fire in the air, burning with a characteristic blue flame and abundant brownish smoke. It is readily attacked by nitric acid, and by strong sulphuric and muriatic acids. In diluted sulphuric and muriatic acids, however, it dissolves but slowly, with evolution of hydrogen. Oxide of indium is a pale-yellow powder, becoming darker when heated, and dissolving in acids with evolution of heat. The hydrated oxide is thrown down from indium-solutions by ammonia, as a white, gelatinous, alumina-like precipitate, drying up into a horny mass. The sulphide is thrown down by sulphuretted hydrogen as an orange-yellow precipitate, insoluble in acetic but soluble in mineral acids. The hydrate and sulphide of indium, in their relations to fixed alkali solutions more particularly, seem to manifest a feebly-marked acidulous character. Chloride of indium, obtained by combustion of the metal in chlorine gas, occurs as a white micaceous sublimate, and is volatile at a red heat, without previous fusion. The chloride itself undergoes decomposition when heated in free air, and the solution of the chloride upon brisk evaporation, with formation in both cases of an oxichloride.

  1. Lecture before the Royal Institution.
  2. For some qualifications of this statement, vide Roscoe's "Spectrum Analysis."