<img src="https://d5nxst8fruw4z.cloudfront.net/atrk.gif?account=iA1Pi1a8Dy00ym" style="display:none" height="1" width="1" alt="" />
Skip Navigation

Early History of the Periodic Table

Two early attempts to organize the known elements.

Atoms Practice
Estimated5 minsto complete
Practice Early History of the Periodic Table
This indicates how strong in your memory this concept is
Estimated5 minsto complete
Practice Now
Turn In
It's Greek to Me

It’s Greek to Me

Credit: David Kline
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camping_on_unnamed_lake_in_Brooks_Range.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

As the sun sets over the lake, you sit in front of your tent, enjoying a cool breeze blowing. The campfire is burning brightly and bringing a feeling of warmth to the area. It’s getting dark, so you decide to turn in for the night. Pouring water and dirt on the fire makes sure it is completely extinguished. You crawl into your tent and quickly fall asleep.

Amazing But True

  • The ancient Greek philosophers sometimes get a bum rap. They are pictured as doing nothing more than sitting around and debating all day long. Well, to some extent that is true. But they did notice the world around them. One great philosopher was Aristotle, who was also well-known for his study of the physical world. Aristotle wrote many treatises on various aspects of biology and medicine, containing errors (of course), but also a great deal of scientifically correct information.
  • About 2500 years ago the Greek philosopher Empedocles proposed that all matter was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Later, Plato developed the idea of an element, and Aristotle played off of this idea. For Aristotle, all materials were composed of different proportions of these four elements. For example, lava (from a volcano) was made up of earth and fire. He also proposed that all matter had four properties: hot, cold, wet, and dry.
  • Credit: Deutsche Fotothek
    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fotothek_df_tg_0007129_Theosophie_%5E_Alchemie.jpg
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    Seventeenth century alchemical emblem showing the four Classical elements in the corners of the image [Figure2]

  • Being the authority can have some problems associated with it. For Aristotle, his ideas actually held up progress in chemistry for almost 2000 years. He opposed the idea of atoms developed years earlier by Lucretius and Democritus. His fixation on his four elements closed the door for centuries to the exploration of other ideas. It took hundreds of years and the rise of the experimental method for people to ask “How do we know this?” and start looking for answers.
  • Watch a video about Aristotle at the link below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeJJpbDrVRM

Show What You Know

Use the links below to learn more about Greek philosophers and their ideas about matter. Then answer the following questions.

  1. According to Empedocles, what forces moved the four elements?
  2. What were the four solids that Plato believed made up the four elements?
  3. What did Aristotle believe about ultimate reality?
  4. According to Aristotle, what elements made up the substance wood?

    Notes/Highlights Having trouble? Report an issue.

    Color Highlighted Text Notes
    Please to create your own Highlights / Notes
    Show More

    Explore More

    Sign in to explore more, including practice questions and solutions for Early History of the Periodic Table.
    Please wait...
    Please wait...
    Add Note
    Please to create your own Highlights / Notes