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Principles of Chemistry


Reduction and Oxidation

In their researches, the alchemists frequently made use of two chemical processes which are now termed reduction and oxidation. Therusting of metals, and in general their conversion from a metallic into an earthy form, is called oxidation, whilst the extraction of a metal from an earthy substance is called reduction. Many metals for instance, iron, lead, and tin are oxidized by heating in air alone, and may be again reduced by heating with carbon. Such oxidized metals are found in the earth, and form the majority of metallic ores.

The metals, such as tin, iron, and copper, may be extracted from these ores by heating them together with carbon. All these processes were well studied by the alchemists. It was afterwards shown that all earths and minerals are formed of similar metallic rusts or oxides, or of their combinations. Thus the alchemists knew of two forms of chemical changes : the oxidation of metals and the reduction of the oxides so formed into metals.

The explanation of the nature of these two classes of chemical phenomena was the means for the discovery of the most important chemical laws/The first hypothesis on their nature is due to Becker, and more particularly to Stahl, a surgeon to the King of Prussia.

Stahl writes in his ' Fundamenta Chymiae,' 1723, that all substances consist of an imponderable fiery substance calledphlogiston (materia aut principium ignis non ipse ignis), and of another element having particular properties for each substance. The greater the capacity of a body for oxidation, or the more combustible it is, the richer it is in phlogiston. Carbon contains it in great abundance., In oxidation or combustion phlogiston is emitted, and in reduction it is consumed or enters into combination. Carbon reduces earthy substances because it is rich in phlogiston, and gives up a portion of its phlogiston to the substance reduced. Thus Stahl supposed metals to be compound substances consisting of phlogiston and an earthy substance or oxide. This hypothesis is distinguished for its very great simplicity, and for this and other reasons it acquired many supporters.

The Element

In order to be able to express various chemical changes by equations, it has been agreed to represent each element by the first or some two letters of its (Latin) name. Thus, for example, oxygen is represented by the letter O ; nitrogen by N ; mercury (hydrargyrum) by Hg ; iron (ferrum) by Fe , and so on for all the elements. A compound substance is represented by placing the symbols representing the elements of which it is made up side by side. For example, red mercury oxide is represented by HgO, which shows that it is composed of oxygen and mercury.

Besides this, the symbol of every element corresponds with a certain relative quantity of it by weight, called its combining' weight, or the weight of an atom; so that the chemical formula of a compound substance not only designates the nature of the elements of which it is composed, but also their quantitative proportion. Every chemical process may be expressed by an equation composed of the formulae corresponding with those substances which take part in it and are produced by it. The amount by weight of the elements in every chemical equation must be equal on both sides of the equation since no element is either formed or destroyed in a chemical change.

Mendeleev's Periodic Principles

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