1789 – France
‘In a chemical reaction, the total mass of the reacting substances is equal to the total mass of the products formed’
Mass is neither created nor destroyed in a chemical change.
Antoine Lavoisier made the first list of the elements, established the idea of conservation of mass and discovered the true nature of burning and the role of oxygen. Lavoisier continued the work of ROBERT BOYLE. He radically reformed the concept of chemistry and killed off the ARISTOTLEIAN concepts of elemental matter. Lavoisier realised that every substance can exist in three phases – solid, liquid and gas – and proved that water and air are not elements, as had been believed for centuries, but chemical compounds. He thus helped to provide a foundation for DALTON’s atomic theory. He opened the way to the idea that air not only had mass but may be a mixture of gases.
Lavoisier was instrumental in disproving the phlogiston theory, a widely held view that when substances burn they give off ‘phlogiston’, a weightless substance. The phlogiston debate owed much to alchemy and said that anything burnable contained a special ‘active’ substance called phlogiston that dissolved into the air when it burned. Therefore, anything that burned must become lighter because it loses phlogiston. This had become the scientific orthodoxy.
By carefully weighing substances before and after burning, Lavoisier showed that combustion was a chemical reaction in which a fuel combined with oxygen.
He burned a piece of tin inside a sealed container and showed that it became heavier after burning, while the air became lighter. While the overall weight of the vessel remained the same during Lavoisier’s experiments – for example when burning tin, phosphorus or sulphur in a sealed container – the solids being heated could in fact gain mass. There was no change in total mass as substances were simply changing places.
It became apparent that rather than losing something (phlogiston) to the air, the tin was taking something from it. The explanation was that the weight gain was caused by combination of the solid with the air trapped in the container.
After meeting JOSEPH PRIESTLY in Paris, Lavoisier realised that Priestley’s ‘dephlogisticated air’ was not only the gas from the atmosphere that was combining with the matter but, moreover, it was actually essential for combustion. He renamed it ‘oxygen’ (‘acid producer’ in Greek) from the mistaken belief that the element was evident in the make up of all acids. He also noted the existence of the other main component of air, the inert gas nitrogen that he named ‘azote’.
Lavoisier’s wife Marie-Anne Pierrette assisted him in much of his experimental work and illustrated his book, ‘Traite Elementaire de Chimie’ (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry). The text defined a chemical element, saying that it was any substance that could not be analysed further. With this definition he compiled a list of the then known elements, which founded the naming process for chemical compounds. Lavoisier’s list contained 23 ‘elements’. Many turned out not to be elements at all, but the list included sulphur, mercury, iron and zinc, silver and gold. Lavoisier’s name is still used in the title of the modern chemical naming system.
It took John Dalton to connect the concept of elements with the concept of atoms. Dalton noticed that when elements combined to make a compound, they always did so in fixed proportions.
During the French revolution, Lavoisier was guillotined.