Jöns Jakob Berzelius


Before the early 1800s the symbols used to denote chemical elements and compounds were obscure. Alchemists wanted to keep their work secret and so devised symbols for the chemicals they used that would not reveal anything about them. This all changed with the work of Jöns Jakob Berzelius.

Berzelius was born in Linköping, Sweden, in 1779. Both of his parents died while he was young, yet he still managed to finance his education by tutoring. He became interested in nature at school, and while he was a medical student at the University of Uppsala, his interests became more focused on experimental chemistry. Berzelius was so taken with experimental work, he bribed a caretaker in order to gain extra access to the university's laboratory.

In addition to devising a new language of chemistry, Berzelius was also keenly interested in the analysis of minerals. In 1800 Berzelius was apprenticed to a physician at the Medivi mineral springs in Sweden. Here, he analyzed the mineral content of the spring water. It was while working at Medivi that he developed his quantitative analysis skills.

Berzelius's analytical skills were put to the test when he and a colleague, Johan Gottlieb Gahn (1745–1818), noticed a residual substance while studying a method of producing sulfuric acid in 1817. They at first thought the substance was tellurium, but after careful quantitative analysis, they realized that they had isolated a new element. They named this element selenium.

The most notable of Berzelius's contributions to chemistry was his development of a rational system of atomic symbols. Around 1810 Berzelius was working to confirm John Dalton's atomic theory as well as Proust's law showing that separate elements always combined in whole-number proportions. At the same time, he was also compiling the new Swedish Pharmacopoeia. While working on these three projects, Berzelius came to the conclusion that the existing system of denoting elements and compounds was a hindrance. In establishing his own atomic symbols, he stated that "it is easier to write an abbreviated word than to draw a figure which has little analogy with words" (Jaffe 108). Instead of using obscure symbols like circles with arrows extending from their sides, or collections of dots arranged in a specific pattern, Berzelius opted to use the first letter of the Latin name for each element as its symbol. For example, carbon would be denoted as C and oxygen as O. If elements had the same first letter, such as gold ( aurum ) and silver ( argentum ), Berzelius decided that the symbol would be the first two letters of the name: Thus, gold would be known as Au and silver as Ag.

Berzelius then extended his development to represent compounds, for example, copper oxide was identified as CuO and zinc sulfide as ZnS. And, conforming to Proust's law and Dalton's theory, Berzelius added algebraic exponents (later to become subscripts) to his system of atomic symbols—for example, water was denoted as H 2 O and carbon dioxide as CO 2 .

Even though his atomic symbols were introduced in 1814, it was quite a few years before Berzelius's symbols were adopted by the chemistry community. But once accepted, they became the new international language of chemistry.

Berzelius published more than 250 papers in his lifetime covering every aspect of chemistry. He was devoted to the entire field of chemistry, as can be seen by his efforts to bring order to the language of chemistry and to insist on quantitative excellence in all its areas. He died in 1848 and is buried in Stockholm, Sweden.

SEE ALSO Atoms ; Dalton, John .

Lydia S. Scratch


Brock, William H. (1993). The Norton History of Chemistry. New York: W. W. Norton.

Jaffe, Bernard (1976). Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry from Ancient Alchemy to Nuclear Fission. New York: Dover.

Internet Resources

Danna, Steve, and Kelly, Mike J. "Jons Jacob Berzelius (1779–1848)." Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Available from http://www.woodrow.org .

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