International Year of the Periodic Table – Lothar Meyer

Here we’ll highlight some articles and posts about Julius Lothar Meyer, whose first table of the elements was published five years before Mendeleev’s. Yet it’s Mendeleev’s name that is most associated with the periodic table (and why the 150th anniversary is being celebrated this year and not 2014).

Meyer’s article and vertically orientated table (updated from horizontal one he created for his 1864 textbook), was published in Annalen der Chemie und Pharmacie in 1870, while Mendeleev’s table was published as an abstract in Zeitschrift für Chemie in 1869. It is also interesting to note, as mentioned in this Science History Institute profile on Meyer and Mendeleev, that both were writing textbooks when they created their first tables to organize the elements.

Meyer and Mendeleev were jointly awarded the Royal Society’s Davy Medal in 1882 for “their discovery of the periodic relations of the atomic weights.” From The politics of the periodic table – who gets the credit and why, by Kelling Donald in The Conversation:

Indeed, the joint award has been cited as evidence that what was seen by some to be especially valuable about Mendeleev’s table was how it accommodated (as Meyer’s also did) the elements that were known, and not so much for Mendeleev’s predictions of new elements.

Was the Royal Society hoping too, through the joint award, to muffle the disquiet about priority or credit for the increasingly indispensable table? Perhaps. But if that were the intention, they failed. In science as in politics, the temptation to be simple rather than accurate can be quite strong. Scientists still say, “Mendeleev discovered the periodic table.”

Donald’s article links out to some interesting sources, including a 1961 Journal of Chemical Education paper on the 1860 Karlsruhe Congress.  Meyer and Mendeleev were both in attendance and found inspiration in Stanislao Cannizzaro’s 1858 “Sketch of a Course of Chemical Philosophy,” which another professor distributed at the meeting.

From Philip Ball’s Whose periodic table is it anyway? in Chemistry World, where he writes about the “baggage of priority” which continues now with recent issues over the CRISPR-Cas9 patents:

Gordin’s point is not that it’s hard to say who discovered the periodic table first, but that, more profoundly, it is not clear what this notion of ‘firstness’ means. There are many ways to express the periodic system (just as there are to draw the table itself). And Gordin highlights that, for these 19th century scientists, both issues depended on what they wanted to do with their system. It was no coincidence that Lothar Meyer’s table appeared in a textbook, because he was more concerned with organising existing knowledge for pedagogy than with developing a predictive law.

Michal Meyer’s profile (An Element of Order) of both chemists in Distillations for the Science History Institute in 2013, based on an interview with Michael D. Gordin, goes into more detail about the publishing of the various tables and the priority battle. That includes how Mendeleev’s table in the Russian chemical society journal got translated and passed along to get published in a German journal, how a translation error impacted the disputes between the two, and how factors like the Soviet Union’s rise as a chemical research center after World War II helped settle that battle in Mendeleev’s favor.

Gordin reimagines the response and counter-response: “Mendeleev says, ‘But I said it was periodic,’ and Meyer says, ‘No you didn’t. You said it was stufenweise; you said it was gradual.’ Mendeleev goes, ‘Oh, that was the German abstract. That wasn’t the Russian original. You should have looked at the original.’ And Meyer says, ‘I’m not supposed to read Russian. That’s too much to expect from me. I already have to read Italian and French and English and Swedish!’”

The one-word difference, the shift from “periodic” to “stepwise” triggered a heated dispute between the two men that ran throughout much of the 1870s and which was extensively commented on in chemistry journals across Europe. Mendeleev knew he had to persuade the Germans, who by that time were preeminent in chemistry. In 1871 he published the full version of his work—with now detailed predictions of three new elements—in Liebigs Annalen.


More reading:

  • Scerri, E. The Discovery of the Periodic Table As a Case of Simultaneous Discovery.  Philos. Trans. R. Soc., A 2015, 373, 20140172. DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2014.0172
    • Also highlights others who were working on their own ways to organize the elements, including de Chancourtois, Newlands, Odling, Hinrichs.
    • More books in the library collection by Eric Scerri.
  • Van Spronsen, J.W. The Priority Conflict Between Mendeleev and Meyer. J. Chem. Educ. 1969, 46 (3), 136-139. DOI: 10.1021/ed046p136
  • Scerri, E.R. The Evolution of the Periodic System. Scientific American. January 21, 2011.
  • Gordin, M.D. A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table, rev. ed.; Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 2019. DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv39x6w3
  • Gordin, M.D. The Textbook Case of a Priority Dispute: D. I. Mendeleev, Lothar Meyer, and the Periodic System. In Nature Engaged: Science in Practice from the Renaissance to the Present; Riskin, J., Biagioli, M., Eds.; Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2012; pp 59-82.