Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848)

Essay on the Cause of Chemical Proportions, and on Some Circumstances Relating to Them: Together with a Short and Easy Method of Expressing Them.

Annals of Philosophy 2, 443-454 (1813), 3, 51-2, 93-106, 244-255, 353-364 (1814) [from Henry M. Leicester & Herbert S. Klickstein, eds., A Source Book in Chemistry, 1400-1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1952)]

III. On the Chemical Signs, and the Method of Employing them to Express Chemical Proportions.

When we endeavour to express chemical proportions, we find the necessity for chemical signs. Chemistry has always possessed them, though hitherto they have been of very little utility. They owed their origin, no doubt, to the mysterious relation supposed by the alchymists, to exist between the metals and the planets, and to the desire which they had of expressing themselves in a manner incomprehensible to the public. The fellow-laborers in the antiphlogistic revolution published new signs founded on a reasonable principle, the object of which was that the signs, like the new names, should be definitions of the composition of the substances, and that they should be more easily written than the names of the substances themselves. But, though we must acknowledge that these signs were very well contrived, and very ingenious, they were of no use; because it is easier to write an abbreviated word than to draw a figure, which has but little analogy with letters, and which, to be legible, must be made of a larger size than our ordinary writing. In proposing new chemical signs, I shall endeavour to avoid the inconveniences which rendered the old ones of little utility. I must observe here that the object of the new signs is not that, like the old ones, they should be employed to label vessels in the laboratory: they are destined solely to facilitate the expression of chemical proportions, and to enable us to indicate, without long periphrases, the relative number of volumes of the different constituents contained in each compound body. By determining the weight of the elementary volumes, these figures will enable us to express the numeric result of an analysis as simply, and in a manner as easily remembered, as the algebraic formulas in mechanical philosophy.

The chemical signs ought to be letters, for the greater facility of writing, and not to disfigure a printed book. Though this last circumstance may not appear of any great importance, it ought to be avoided whenever it can be done. I shall take, therefore, for the chemical sign, the initial letter of the Latin name of each elementary substance: but as several have the same initial letter, I shall distinguish them in the following manner:-- 1. In the class which I call metalloids, I shall employ the initial letter only, even when this letter is common to the metalloid and some metal. 2. In the class of metals, I shall distinguish those that have the same initials with another metal, or a metalloid, by writing the first two letters of the word. 3. If the first two letters be common to two metals, I shall, in that case, add to the initial letter the first consonant which they have not in common: for example, S = sulphur, Si = silicium, St = stibium (antimony), Sn = stannum (tin), C = carbonicum, Co = cobaltum (cobalt), Cu = cuprum (copper), O = oxygen, Os = osmium, &c.

The chemical sign expresses always one volume of the substance. When it is necessary to indicate several volumes, it is done by adding the number of volumes: for example, the oxidum cuprosum (protoxide of copper) is composed of a volume of oxygen and a volume of metal; therefore its sign is Cu + O. The oxidum cupricum (peroxide of copper) is composed of 1 volume of metal and 2 volumes of oxygen; therefore its sign is Cu + 2O. In like manner, the sign for sulphuric acid is S + 3O; for carbonic acid, C + 2O; for water 2H + O, &c.

When we express a compound volume of the first order, we throw away the +, and place the number of volumes above the letter: for example, CuO + SO3 = sulphate of copper, CuO2 + 2SO3 = persulphate of copper. These formulas have the advantage, that if we take away the oxygen, we see at once the ratio between the combustible radicals. As to the volumes of the second order, it is but rarely of any advantage to express them by formulas as one volume; but if we wish to express them in that way, we may do it by using the parenthesis, as is done in algebraic formulas: for example, alum is composed of 3 volumes of sulphate of aluminia and 1 volume of sulphate of potash. Its symbol is 3(AlO2 + 2SO3) + (Po2 + 2SO3). As to the organic volumes it is at present very uncertain how far figures can be successfully employed to express their composition. We shall have occasion only in the following pages to express the volume of ammonia. It is 6H + N + O or H6NO.


Comparative Table of the Specific Weights of Elementary Bodies

Names Symbols Weight in form of gas Ditto at a minimum Ditto at a maximum Sp. gr. in a solid form
Oxygen O 100.00 ... ... ...
Sulphur S 201.00 200.00 210.00 1.998
Phosphorus P 167.512 167.3 ... 1.714
Muriatic radicle M 139.56 ... 157.7 ...
Fluoric radicle F 60. ... ... ...
Boron B 73.273 ... ... ...
Carbon C 75.1 73.6 75.9 3.5
Nitric radicle N 79.54 75.51 ... ...
Hydrogen H 6.636 ... 7.63 ...
Arsenic As 839.9 ... 852.2 8.81
Molybdenum Mo 601.56 ... ... 8.6
Chromium Ch 708.045 ... ... 5.9 ?
Tungsten Tn 2424.24 ... ... 17.22
Antimony Sb 1612.96 ... ... 6.7
Tellurium Te 806.48 ... 819. 6.115
Columbium Cl ... ... ... ...
Titanium Ti 1801. ... ... ...
Zirconium Zr ... ... ... ...
Silicium Si 216.66 ... ... ...
Osmium Os ... ... ... ...
Iridium I ... ... ... ...
Rhodium Rh 1490.31 ... ... 11.
Platinum Pt 1206.7 ... ... 21.65
Gold Au 2483.8 ... ... 19.361
Palladium Pa 1407.56 ... ... 11.871
Silver Ag 2688.17 ... 2718.31 10.51
Mercury Hg 2531.6 2503.13 2536.1 13.56
Copper Cu 806.48 800. ... 8.722
Nickel Ni 733.8 ... ... 8.666
Cobalt Co 732.61 ... ... 8.7
Bismuth Bi 1774. ... ... 9.88
Lead Pb 2597.4 ... 2620.2 11.445
Tin Sn 1470.59 ... ... 7.299
Iron Fe 693.64 ... ... 7.788
Zinc Zn 806.45 ... ... 7.215
Manganese Ma 711.575 ... ... 8.013
Uranium U ... ... ... ...
Cerium Ce 1148.8 ... ... ...
Yttrium Y 881.66 876.42 ... ...
Glucinum Gl ... ... ... ...
Aluminum Al 228.025 ... 342. ...
Magnesium Ms 315.46 301.63 321.93 ...
Strontium Sr 1418.14 ... ... ...
Barytium Ba 1709.1 ... ... ...
Calcium Ca 510.2 ... ... ...
Sodium So 579.32 ... ... 0.9348
Potassium Po 978.0 ... ... 0.8