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Mendeleev's Law of Periodicity

The following is an excerpt from a paper presented by Professor Mendeléeff in the Theatre of the Royal Institution, on Tuesday, June 4th, 1889. (reference) Here Mendeleev summarized the discoveries that permitted him to establish the law of periodicity.

The law of periodicity was a direct outcome of the stock of generalizations and established facts which had accumulated by the end of the decade 1860-1870: it is an embodiment of those data in a more or less systematic expression. Where, then, lies the secret of the special importance which has since been attached to the periodic law, and has raised it to the position of a generalization which has already given to chemistry unexpected aid, and which promises to be far more fruitful in the future and to impress upon several branches of chemical research a peculiar and original stamp?

In the first place, it was at that time that the numerical value of atomic weights became definitely known. Ten years earlier such knowledge did not exist, as may be gathered from the fact that in 1860 chemists from all parts of the world met at Karlsruhe in order to come to some agreement, if not with respect to views relating to atoms, at any rate as regards their definite representation. Many of those present probably remember how vain were the hopes of coming to an understanding, and how much ground was gained at that Congress by the followers of the unitary theory so brilliantly represented by Cannizzaro.

I vividly remember the impression produced by his speeches, which admitted of no compromise, and seemed to advocate truth itself, based on the conceptions of Avogadro, Gerhardt and Regnault, which at that time were far from being generally recognised. And though no understanding could be arrived at, yet the objects of the meeting were attained, for the ideas of Cannizzaro proved, after a few years, to be the only ones which could stand criticism, and which represented an atom as "the smallest portion of an element which enters into a molecule of its compound." Only such real atomic weights, not conventional ones, could afford a basis for generalization. It is sufficient, by way of example, to indicate the following cases in which the relation is seen at once and is perfectly clear:

K = 39

Rb = 85

Cs = 133

Ca = 40

Sr = 87

Ba = 137

whereas with the equivalents then in use:

K = 39

Rb = 85

Cs = 133

Ca = 20

Sr = 43.5

Ba = 68.5

the consecutiveness of change in atomic weight, which with the true values is so evident, completely disappears.

Secondly, it had become evident during the period 1860-70, and even during the preceding decade, that the relations between the atomic weights of analogous elements were governed by some general and simple laws. Cooke, Cremers, Gladstone, Gmelin, Lenssen, Pettenkofer, and especially Dumas, had already established many facts bearing on that view. Thus Dumas compared the following groups of analogous elements with organic radicals:





Mg = 12

P = 31

O = 8




Li = 7

Ca = 20

As = 75

S = 16


3 x 8


3 x 8

Na = 23

Sr = 44

Sb = 119

Se = 40


3 x 8

2 x 44

3 x 8

K = 39

Ba = 68

Bi = 207

Te = 64

and pointed out some really striking relationships, such as the following:

F = 19.
Cl = 35.5 = 19 + 16.5.
Br = 80 = 19 + 2 x 16.5 + 28.
I = 127 = 2 x 19 + 2 x 16.5 + 2 x 28.

A. Strecker, in his work "Theorien und Experimente zur Bestimmung der Atomgewichte der Elemente" (Braunschweig, 1859), after summarising the data relating to the subject, and pointing out the remarkable series of equivalents:

Cr = 26.2 Mn = 27.6 Fe = 28 Ni = 29 Co = 30
Cu = 31.7 Zn = 32.5

remarks that: "It is hardly probable that all the above-mentioned relations between the atomic weights (or equivalents) of chemically analogous elements are merely accidental. We must, however, leave to the future the discovery of the law of the relations which appears in these figures."

In such attempts at arrangement and in such views are to be recognized the real forerunners of the periodic law; the ground was prepared for it between 1860 and 1870, and that it was not expressed in a determinate form before the end of the decade, may, I suppose, be ascribed to the fact that only analogous elements had been compared.

The idea of seeking for a relation between the atomic weights of all the elements was foreign to the ideas then current, so that neither the vis tellurique of De Chancourtois, nor the law of octaves of Newlands, could secure anybody's attention. And yet both De Chancourtois and Newlands, like Dumas and Strecker, more than Lenssen and Pettenkofer, had made an approach to the periodic law and had discovered its germs. The solution of the problem advanced but slowly, because the facts, and not the law, stood foremost in all attempts; and the law could not awaken a general interest so long as elements, having no apparent connection with each other, were included in the same octave, as for example:

1st octave of Newlands




Co & Ni




Pt & Ir

7th Ditto





Rh & Ru



Os or Th

Analogies of the above order seemed quite accidental, and the more so as the octave contained occasionally 10 elements instead of eight, and when two such elements as Ba and V, Co and Ni, or Rh and Ru, occupied one place in the octave. Nevertheless, the fruit was ripening, and I now see clearly that Strecker, De Chancourtois and Newlands stood foremost in the way toward the discovery of the periodic law, and that they merely wanted the boldness necessary to place the whole question at such a height that its reflection on the facts could be clearly seen.

A third circumstance which revealed the periodicity of chemical elements was the accumulation, by the end of the sixties, of new information respecting the rare elements, disclosing their many-sided relations to the other elements and to each other. The researches of Marignac on niobium, and those of Roscoe on vanadium were of special moment. The striking analogies between vanadium and phosphorus on the one hand, and between vanadium and chromium on the other, which became so apparent in the investigations connected with that element, naturally induced the comparison of V = 51 with Cr = 52, Nb = 94 with Mo = 96, and Ta = 192 with W = 194; while, on the other hand, P = 31 could be compared with S = 32, As = 75 with Se = 79, and Sb = 120 with Te = 125. From such approximations there remained but one step to the discovery of the law of periodicity.

Mendeleev rewrote each edition of Principles of Chemistry, including all new scientific data-particularly confirmations of the periodic law-and reanalyzing difficulties that had arisen to hinder its confirmation (inert gases, radioactivity, radioactive and rare-earth elements)"

See also: Development of the Periodic Table, de Chancourtois, Dobereiner, Mendeleev, Moseley, Newlands, Seaborg