Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

1.1.3: History of Inorganic Chemistry

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Metals serve an essential role in many aspects of human civilization and have defined Ages of human history. The period of time from about 3300 BC to 1200 BC is often referred to as the Bronze Age. During this period our ancestors first started using metal and learned to mix various elements with copper to make a strong alloy, called bronze. This Age yielded significant advancement in crafting of sharper knives and stronger weapons out of metal instead of rock, wood and bone. Around 1200 BC the human race found an even harder metal and discovered a much stronger alloy called steel. This period is known as the Iron Age. More recently, periods of time known as Gold Rushes have caused huge changes in population distributions and wealth in some countries. Metal has obvious importance in our modern way of life. Today, iron and steel are used for making buildings, machines, automobiles, jewelry, cooking pots, tools, weapons, vehicles, electronics, surgical instruments and symbolic structures like the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Gold, silver, and copper still serve as currency for trade and exchange of goods and services.

    The existence of Chemistry as a field of study owes much to the fact that gold was a valuable commodity throughout our history. In both the ancient Egyptian society and during the Roman Empire, the gold mines were the property of the state, not an individual or group. So there were few ways for most people to legally get any gold for themselves. The Alchemists were a varied group of scholars and charlatans who aimed to solve this problem by creating the Philosopher's Stone (which caused the transmutation of lead into gold). Three major streams of alchemy are known, Chinese, Indian, and European, with all three streams having some factors in common. Techniques developed in the European stream ultimately influenced the development of the science of chemistry.

    CK12 Screenshot 1-10-2.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). Alchemist recipe. Many of the specific approaches that alchemists used when they tried changing lead into gold are vague and unclear. Each alchemist had his own code for recording his data. The processes were kept secret so others could not profit from them. Different scholars developed their own set of symbols as they recorded the information they came up with. Many alchemists were not very honest, taking money from a nobleman by claiming to be able to make gold from lead, then leaving town in the middle of the night. Sometimes the nobleman would detect the fraud and have the alchemist hung. By the 1300's, several European rules had declared alchemy to be illegal and set out strict punishments for those practicing the alchemical arts.

    Although alchemists were never successful in changing lead into gold, they made several contributions to modern-day chemistry. Strong acids and bases were discovered, including nitric acid (H2NO3), sulfuric acid (H3SO4), and hydrochloric acid (HCl), and sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Glassware for running chemical reactions were developed, as well as methods for distillation, crystallization, sublimation. Alchemy helped improve the study of metallurgy and the extraction of metals from ores. More systematic approaches to research were developed that allowed the discovery of atoms and laid the groundwork for development of the periodic table. For more about the History of Chemistry in general, try the LibreText page A Brief History of Chemistry.

    Inorganic compounds have been known and used since antiquity; probably the oldest is the deep blue pigment called Prussian blue (KFe2(CN)6). However, the chemical nature of these substances was unknown until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when the modern field of Coordination Chemistry emerged. Much of what we know about inorganic chemistry is based largely on the work of and debates between of Alfred Werner (1866–1919; Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1913) and Sophus Mads Jørgensen (1837 –1914). After Werner succeeded in these debates, the field of Inorganic Chemistry declined in popularity until the mid twentieth century when the second world war stimulated renewed interest. During the post-war erra, several important discoveries and theories were developed. For example, important theories of bonding in coordination compounds were developed.

    Soon after World War II, Crystal Field Theory (CFT) and Ligand Field Theory (LFT) were developed. These are two critical and complimentary theories that provide explanation of spectroscopic, chemical, and structural properties of inorganic coordination compounds; CFT being more simple, and LFT more accurate. In the 1950's, organometallic catalysts were discovered that catalyzed important organic reactions and the Haber-Bosch Process was discovered. The Haber-Bosch Process is catalyzed by an inorganic oxide catalyst and is one of the world's most important industrial reactions. It provides for the synthesis of ammonia directly from elemental nitrogen, N2, and hydrogen, H2.

    \[ \ce{N_2(g) + 3H_2(g) \rightleftharpoons 2NH_3 (g)} \label{eq1}\]

    Since its development in the early twentieth century, it has led to the production of an enormous quantity of fertilizer, vastly increasing global food production. As a result, it is estimated that a significant fraction of the nitrogen content in the typical human body is ultimately derived from this process. Yet while the reaction must be run at high temperatures and pressures in the industrial setting, the nitrogenase enzyme on the roots of plants can cary out this reaction at the mild conditions within soil. Intense investigations were then aimed to improve inorganic catalysts through understanding the metal cofactors in enzymes. The link between the Haber-Bosche industrial process and the nitrogenase enzyme was an early bridge between the fields of organometallic chemistry and biochemistry.


    Part of this page is adapted from K.Haas Ph.D. dissertation

    Part of this page is adapted from the follwing LibreTexts pages

    1.1.3: History of Inorganic Chemistry is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?