Chemistry: Who Invented Chemistry?

Who Invented Chemistry?

If you haven't yet been convinced that chemistry is a worthwhile pursuit, you may be wondering who you can blame for its invention. Bad news—you'll have to travel back in time to punch the inventors in the nose, because chemistry has been around for thousands of years.

It's All Greek to Me!

Though it's not entirely clear when people started using chemistry, the first people to record their studies were the ancient Greeks. For this, as well as their many philosophical ponderings, students hate them to this day.

Ancient Greek scientists are primarily known for coming up with the idea of elements as well as early models of the atom. Unfortunately, the limitations of their technology kept them from getting an accurate idea of what these elements were and what atoms really looked like.

Turning Trash into Gold


One of the greatest alchemists was Jabir ibn Haiyan, who lived in the eighth century C.E. In addition to his quest to make gold, he wrote about dyeing fabrics, making fabric waterproof, and refining metals.

For a very long time in the Middle Ages, chemistry was a mystical pseudo-science performed by alchemists whose goal was to turn cheap metals such as lead into gold using mysterious chemical processes. Typically, the works of the alchemists were mystical, involving spells and potions.

Though their science was a little flaky, the alchemists did keep the knowledge of the ancient Greeks alive while adding some touches of their own. Islamic alchemists in particular developed many of the laboratory techniques we use today, most notably the use of distillation to purify liquids.

Chemistry Hits the Big Time

The first modern chemist was Robert Boyle (1627-1691). Though most famous for his work with gases, Boyle was also the first to disagree with the Greek idea of four elements in his book The Skeptical Chymist, published in 1661.

Despite his groundbreaking work, Boyle continued to believe that metals weren't really elements and that it would eventually be possible to convert one metal into another using chemical processes. Hey, even the greats sometimes strike out.

Modern Chemistry

Nowadays, chemistry has been converted from a quest to make gold into a big business with hundreds of thousands of chemists working worldwide. However, the quest to make valuable materials continues to be the driving force for modern chemistry.

One of the largest areas of chemical research today is the development of new pharmaceuticals. Because antibiotic resistance is a growing problem when treating many diseases, new drugs are continually being developed. The treatment of the HIV virus has been revolutionized by the use of protease-inhibiting medications. Organ transplants are made possible by the use of anti-rejection medications. Modern medicine simply wouldn't be possible without chemistry.

In fact, most of the stuff around your house benefits in one way or another from the practice of modern chemistry. The food you eat is colored, flavored, and preserved by various chemical additives. The cleaning supplies you use to keep your house from being closed by the health department are manufactured in industrial lots by large chemical firms. The bug killers you use to keep cockroaches from overrunning your kitchen are made in giant labs. Modern life simply wouldn't be possible without the use of chemistry.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chemistry © 2003 by Ian Guch. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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