Chemistry Inventions that Enabled the Modern World

I suppose that the first chemists seemed to be very hard-hearted and unpoetical persons when they scouted the glorious dream of the alchemists that there must be some process for turning base metals into gold.
– W.G. Sumner, US Sociologist and teacher, 1840 – 1910

imageChemistry is about the composition, structure, properties and interactions of matter and it is essential to most things we have and use in our daily lives. The first known man-initiated chemical processes were carried out by the artisans of Mesopotamia, Vucedol, Egypt, and China.

Early humans produced metal tools and ornaments from beaten copper as early as 12,000 years ago in some parts of the world. By about 6,000 years ago, early experiments in metallurgy, particularly extracting metals from copper ore by smelting, were conducted by the Vucedol culture in the vicinity of todays Vukovar in the Eastern Slavonia region of Croatia.

I have been thinking about the origin of chemistry quite a lot recently, as a Bearing team works with a feasibility study for the Ministry of Culture in Croatia, regarding a new visitor centre and museum about the Vucedol culture.

The visitor centre is situated in a very scenic spot on the core hill of the Vucedol cultures settlements by the Danube river. Once it opens, it will be an important sight to visit for people interested in early human history, I think on par with the Cradle of Mankind visitor Centre in the Gauteng province of South Africa.

Vucedol hill

At first the smiths of these early cultures worked with native metals such as gold or copper, which sometimes occur in nature in a pure state, but they quickly learned how to smelt metallic ores by heating them with wood or charcoal to obtain the metals.

Vucedol potteryThe progressive use of copper, bronze, and iron gave rise to the names that have been applied to the corresponding ages by archaeologists. A primitive chemical technology also arose in these cultures as dyers discovered methods of setting dyes on different types of cloth, and as potters learned how to prepare glazes, and, later, to make glass.

Many scholars have tried to understand why the scientific revolution occurred when and where it did. Philosophical attempts to understand the workings of nature and the techniques of mathematical analysis reached astonishingly high levels of accomplishment among the ancient Greeks.

From the time of Thales, about 600 BC, Greek philosophers were making logical speculations about the physical world rather than relying on myth to explain phenomena. Thales himself assumed that all matter was derived from water, which could solidify to earth or evaporate to air. His successors expanded this theory into the idea that four elements composed the world: earth, water, air, and fire.

AristotleAristotle became the most influential of the Greek philosophers, and his ideas dominated science for nearly two millennia after his death in 323 BC. Aristotle believed that four qualities were found in nature: heat, cold, moisture, and dryness.The four elements were each composed of pairs of these qualities; for example, fire was hot and dry, water was cold and moist, air was hot and moist, and earth was cold and dry.

Then during the Middle Ages it looked as though the civilization of Islam would build upon the Greek legacy, while Europeans ignored it. The Muslims made notable achievements in natural philosophy, chemistry, medicine, and mathematics.

Meanwhile, science and technology in China were also ahead of anything in Europe. During the 17th century, however, Western Europeans overtook everyone and went much further. Historians are still struggling to understand why the Western Europeans inaugurated the scientific revolution, rather than the Greeks, Muslims, or Chinese.

Top 5 Chemistry InnovationsOn June 3rd, Mark Lorch, Senior Lecturer in Biological Chemistry at University of Hull, published an article on the World Economic Forums website about the five chemistry innovations that enabled the modern world.

His article caught my attention, as he started by stating “Did you know that the discovery of a way to make ammonia was the single most important reason for the world’s population explosion from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion today?”

MercuryBy the middle of the 19th century there was a significant increase in scientific understanding of chemistry and thermodynamics and by the last quarter of the century both of these sciences were near their present day level.

Science was continually improved and evolved into a modern engineering discipline, laying the foundation for industrialized mass-production, which replaced the old static world order. While the first industrial revolution had centered on iron, steam technologies and textile production, the second industrial revolution revolved around steel, railroads, electricity, and chemicals. Mr. Lorch´s list contains:

  1. Penicillin, which most likely has saved the life of many readers of this blog
  2. The Haber-Bosch process, to combine nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, which can be turned into crop fertiliser
  3. Polythene, which is the basis of most common plastic objects, from water pipes to food packaging
  4. Contraceptive pills, which was initially made from a substance in the root vegetable Mexican yam
  5. Liquid crystal displays, initially made from a molecule known as 5CB

The picture below is from the World Economic Forum article.

Five Chemistry Innovations

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