The 19th century gave rise to a chemical revolution as the pace of scientific discoveries accelerated rapidly across Europe. Perhaps the most well known is Mendeleev’s periodic table — his attempt to bring order and structure to the chaotic state of elemental composition. But just as chemical reactions don’t happen in isolation, Mendeleev’s work was predicated on earlier efforts and refined by contemporary work, specifically that of Julius Lothar Meyer.
Never heard of him? You’re not alone — so, let’s dig in and discover why he deserves his seat at the periodic table.
Getting a Leg Up
A table with one leg won’t stand up. Two is a balancing nightmare, and while triangular construction offers better support, four is far and away the best choice when it comes to keeping things stable.
The same holds true of our periodic counterpart. While Mendeleev gets much-deserved credit for his conceptualization of the period table — specifically for his realization that gaps were required to account for as-yet-undiscovered elements and his willingness to “swap” elements based on their behavior instead of their presumed atomic weight — he wasn’t alone in the effort.
First to the periodic party was Alexandre Béguyer de Chancourtois, a French geology professor who created the “telluric screw.” This 3D plot represented elements on the outside of a cylinder such that one turn of the screw represented an atomic weight increase of 16 and an alignment with a similar, heavier element. While Chancourtois’ method missed the mark on some chemical trends, it was the first conceptualization of similar elements appearing at periodic atomic weights.
The next leg came from British chemist John Newlands. He noticed that elements with weights that differed by seven often had similar properties and grouped them accordingly, using what he called the “Law of Octaves,” although his version had seven steps to music’s more common eight. The problem? Instead of leaving gaps for new discoveries, Newlands crammed multiple elements into single boxes to fit his pattern, leading to push back from other scientists and refusal by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) to publish his paper. Claims that he had discovered the pattern first fell on deaf ears when Mendeleev’s table was published, but he was posthumously honored by the RSC with a plaque declaring him the “discoverer of the Periodic Law for the chemical elements.”
Last but not least in our elemental infrastructure effort? Julius Lothar Meyer.
On August 19th, 2020, search giant Google celebrated the anniversary of Meyer’s 190th birthday by featuring this work in their popular Google Doodle, leading to an uptick in users clicking through to discover exactly who Meyer was — and why he mattered.
Put simply, Meyer came up with his own version of the periodic table at the same time as Mendeleev, as Inverse explains. It wasn’t quite as elegant or well spaced, but it offered a similar structure. The problem? Meyer was unaware of Mendeleev’s work and published his own version a year after Mendeleev’s effort. While both scientists shared a teacher in Robert Busen at the University of Heidelberg, they were students five years apart. After completing their studies, the older Meyer stayed in Germany and the younger Mendeleev went back to Russia. With similar training and similar interests, they both took on the task of creating a periodic table — but Mendeleev got there first.
Meyer’s table looked similar to Mendeleev’s, with vertical lines representing elements with identical valance numbers, although he didn’t account for gaps in the same way as Mendeleev. However, what he did do was recognize the periodic nature of elements when atomic volume was plotted against atomic weight. The Google Doodle offered a recreation of his graph, which showed a clear repeating pattern and helped to shape modern understanding of elemental interactions. In 1882, both Meyer and Mendeleev were awarded the Royal Society’s Davy Medal in recognition for their contributions to chemistry.
Just as Francis Crick and James Watson are often credited with the “discovery” of DNA but had a lot of help along the way from Rosalind Franklin, Mendeleev didn’t build an elemental table in isolation, and work is still ongoing. Consider the efforts of Henry Mosley. Six years after Mendeleev’s death in 1913, Mosley found a way to precisely measure atomic numbers: by firing an X-ray gun at element samples and measuring the resulting wavelength. He discovered that when the square root of this result was plotted for each element, it matched atomic number estimates and offered a way to precisely determine an element’s place in the table.
More recent work on extending the periodic table resulted in the creation of elements that don’t occur naturally, which helped to fill in the largely-absent seventh row. And even this isn’t the end. As ThoughtCo explains, evidence suggests the existence of an “island of stability” in elements with much higher atomic numbers than we can currently create. Unlike current efforts that are synthesized and almost immediately vanish, these new elements should be stable for much longer.
Bottom line? While Mendeleev created much of the supporting structure for the familiar element framework, he’s not the only builder. Sure, his work earns him pride of place at the head of the table, but contemporaries including Alexandre Béguyer de Chancourtois, John Newlands and Julius Lothar Meyer all deserve a seat.