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Humphry Davy and the Birth of Chlorine

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#40 Science in History

21st February 1811

Published in 1811, the paper 'On a Combination of Oxymuriatic Gas and Oxygene Gas' was read to the Royal Society by its author, Humphry Davy on this day 1811. It describes Davy's discovery of a new chemical element, which he named chlorine.

Davy conducted a series of experiments in which he combined a gas that we now know to be chlorine with oxygen and observed the resulting chemical reaction. He found that the combination of the two gases produced a new substance with distinct properties, which he identified as a new element.

This discovery was significant for several reasons:

1. It was one of the earliest discoveries of a new chemical element, which helped to establish the idea that there were still new substances waiting to be discovered.

2. The substance was an important chemical for many industries, including bleaching, water purification, and the manufacture of various chemicals.

3. The discovery of chlorine contributed to the development of the concept of valence, which describes the combining power of elements.

Did Davy discover chlorine?

While Humphry Davy is often credited with the discovery of chlorine, it is important to note that he was not the only scientist to study the gas and its properties. Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele also discovered chlorine in 1774, many years before Davy's work.

Scheele observed the bleaching properties of the gas produced by treating hydrochloric acid with manganese dioxide, which we now know to be chlorine. However, Scheele did not recognize the gas as a new element, and his work was not widely known at the time.

Davy's contribution was to recognize the gas produced by the combination of oxymuriatic gas and oxygen as a new element, and to provide a detailed description of its properties.

So, while Scheele did observe chlorine before Davy, it was Davy who made the significant contribution of identifying and naming the element, and it is his work that is considered to have led to the discovery of chlorine.


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