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7.1: Development of the Periodic Table

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    Learning Objectives
    • To become familiar with the history of the periodic table.

    The modern periodic table has evolved through a long history of attempts by chemists to arrange the elements according to their properties as an aid in predicting chemical behavior. One of the first to suggest such an arrangement was the German chemist Johannes Dobereiner (1780–1849), who noticed that many of the known elements could be grouped in triads (a set of three elements that have similar properties)—for example, chlorine, bromine, and iodine; or copper, silver, and gold. Dobereiner proposed that all elements could be grouped in such triads, but subsequent attempts to expand his concept were unsuccessful. We now know that portions of the periodic table—the d block in particular—contain triads of elements with substantial similarities. The middle three members of most of the other columns, such as sulfur, selenium, and tellurium in group 16 or aluminum, gallium, and indium in Group 13, also have remarkably similar chemistry.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Arrangement of the Elements into Octaves as Proposed by Newlands. The table shown here accompanied a letter from a 27-year-old Newlands to the editor of the journal Chemical News in which he wrote: “If the elements are arranged in the order of their equivalents, with a few slight transpositions, as in the accompanying table, it will be observed that elements belonging to the same group usually appear on the same horizontal line. It will also be seen that the numbers of analogous elements generally differ either by 7 or by some multiple of seven; in other words, members of the same group stand to each other in the same relation as the extremities of one or more octaves in music. Thus, in the nitrogen group, between nitrogen and phosphorus there are 7 elements; between phosphorus and arsenic, 14; between arsenic and antimony, 14; and lastly, between antimony and bismuth, 14 also. This peculiar relationship I propose to provisionally term the Law of Octaves. I am, &c. John A. R. Newlands, F.C.S. Laboratory, 19, Great St. Helen’s, E.C., August 8, 1865.”

    By the mid-19th century, the atomic masses of many of the elements had been determined. The English chemist John Newlands (1838–1898), hypothesizing that the chemistry of the elements might be related to their masses, arranged the known elements in order of increasing atomic mass and discovered that every seventh element had similar properties (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Newlands therefore suggested that the elements could be classified into octaves. He described octaves as a group of seven elements which correspond to the horizontal rows in the main groups of today's periodic table. There were seven elements because the noble gases were not known at the time. Unfortunately, Newlands’s “law of octaves” did not seem to work for elements heavier than calcium, and his idea was publicly ridiculed. At one scientific meeting, Newlands was asked why he didn’t arrange the elements in alphabetical order instead of by atomic mass, since that would make just as much sense! Actually, Newlands was on the right track—with only a few exceptions, atomic mass does increase with atomic number, and similar properties occur every time a set of ns2np6 subshells is filled. Despite the fact that Newlands’s table had no logical place for the d-block elements, he was honored for his idea by the Royal Society of London in 1887.

    John Newlands (1838–1898)

    John Alexander Reina Newlands was an English chemist who worked on the development of the periodic table. He noticed that elemental properties repeated every seventh (or multiple of seven) element, as musical notes repeat every eighth note.


    The periodic table achieved its modern form through the work of the German chemist Julius Lothar Meyer (1830–1895) and the Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev (1834–1907), both of whom focused on the relationships between atomic mass and various physical and chemical properties. In 1869, they independently proposed essentially identical arrangements of the elements. Meyer aligned the elements in his table according to periodic variations in simple atomic properties, such as “atomic volume” (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)), which he obtained by dividing the atomic mass (molar mass) in grams per mole by the density (\(\rho\)) of the element in grams per cubic centimeter. This property is equivalent to what is today defined as molar volume, the molar mass of an element divided by its density, (measured in cubic centimeters per mole):

    \[ \dfrac{molar\; mass\left ( \cancel{g}/mol \right )}{density\left ( \cancel{g}/cm^{3} \right )}=molar\; volume\left ( cm^{3}/mol \right ) \label{7.1.1} \]

    As shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), the alkali metals have the highest molar volumes of the solid elements. In Meyer’s plot of atomic volume versus atomic mass, the nonmetals occur on the rising portion of the graph, and metals occur at the peaks, in the valleys, and on the downslopes.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Variation of Atomic Volume with Atomic Number, Adapted from Meyer’s Plot of 1870. Note the periodic increase and decrease in atomic volume. Because the noble gases had not yet been discovered at the time this graph was formulated, the peaks correspond to the alkali metals (Group 1).
    Dimitri Mendeleev (1834–1907)

    When his family’s glass factory was destroyed by fire, Mendeleev moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to study science. He became ill and was not expected to recover, but he finished his PhD with the help of his professors and fellow students.


    In addition to the periodic table, another of Mendeleev’s contributions to science was an outstanding textbook, The Principles of Chemistry, which was used for many years.

    Mendeleev’s Periodic Table

    7.1: Development of the Periodic Table is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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