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The ancient Greek 'four elements'

the ancient greek representation of the four elements and their properties

Water: a Brief Early History of its Science

Water has had a key role in the development of modern science


V The beginnings of water science
V The discovery of hydrogen bonds

< Water as a Platonic solid

< Water molecule
< Water models

< Water clusters history

< Water hydrogen bonding


'water is the source of all life'

attributed to Thales of Miletus (624-546 BC)    

The beginnings of water science

Water has always fascinated us, as we need to live near freshwater in order to exist. Early civilizations knew the importance of rain and annual flooding to avoid life-threatening drought and hunger. Water had many uses and there was a great deal of it. They made water an important part of their religions. However, there has been surprisingly little enthusiasm to understand the unique properties of water until quite recently.

 

Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus

Plato

Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377 by English: Copy of Silanion - Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow) 2009. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plato_Silanion_Musei_Capitolini_MC1377.jpg#/media/File:Plato_Silanion_Musei_Capitolini_MC1377.jpg

The Ancient Greek philosophers put forward water as one of the four 'elements' together with 'fire', earth' and 'air' that made up the world (see above right), with water particularly important for life. These 'elements correspond to modern concepts of solid (earth), liquid (water), gas (air) and heat (fire). Thales of Miletus (c. 624 – c. 546 BC, see left), in particular, championed water as the principle factor creating nature. Two centuries later, Plato (c. 424 – c. 348 BC, see right) assumed these 'elements' corresponded to three-dimensional structures; in particular associating icosahedra with water (described on another page). These principles supported science for over two thousand years before proof that these materials were not 'elements' was established in the eighteenth century.

Henry Cavendish

Henry Cavendish

The London scientist Henry Cavendish (10 October 1731 – 24 February 1810, see right) a discovered hydrogen (calling it 'phlogiston' or 'inflammable air' and reported that it produced water when reacted with oxygen b (called 'dephlogisticated air') [2454], so establishing water as a compound, not an 'element'. Antoine Lavoisier (26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794) later reproduced Cavendish's experiment and gave hydrogen its name (from the Greek for "water-former"), Water's composition (two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen) was discovered by Cavendish in about 1781. This composition was confirmed in 1800, when the amounts of hydrogen and oxygen produced by the electrolysis of water were measured by Johan Ritter (16 December 1776 – 23 January 1810).

 

Due, perhaps to the erroneously perceived simplicity of water, little further investigative work on water was attempted during the rest of the 18th and early 19th centuries. As the anomalies of water were starting to be described, various possibilities were put forward for the state of liquid water; the state of the art at the end of the 1930's being comprehensively described by Ernest Dorsey (1873–1959) [2467] with that at the beginning of the 1970's described in Felix Franks's treatise [2469].

 

In 1957 Henry Frank and Wen-Yang Wen stated that long-lived structures (i.e. ices) within liquid water were not feasible but that a useful description was that of 'flickering clusters' [97]; 'These various effects seem explicable in a straightforward manner in terms of a new picture of water as consisting of flickering clusters of hydrogen-bonded molecules, in which the co-operative nature of cluster formation and relaxation is related to the partially covalent character which is postulated for the hydrogen bond''.

 

Although there have been plenty of studies on water, there did seem to be a hiatus after the 'polywater' fiasco in the 1960s that delayed progress. Since the 1990s experimental work has been strongly supported by computational methods that remain, however, restricted by computational power. At present, however, water research remains extremely active but with much controversy persisting.

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The discovery of hydrogen bonding

'the hydrogen nucleus held between 2 octets constitutes a weak "bond."

Latimer and Rodebush (1920) 

 

Coincident with our increasing knowledge concerning water during the last century was our knowledge concerning hydrogen bonding. A recent historical review of hydrogen bonding is available [1950]. The first hydrogen bond was drawn (if strictly incorrectly) by Werner in 1902 [789b] to show the structure of ammonium chloride (NH4Cl) as

H3N····H.Cl

 

The hydrogen bond in water was first suggested by Wendell Latimer (April 22, 1893 – July 6, 1955) and Worth Rodebush (May 24, 1887-August 16 1959), in 1920 [789a] who stated:

http://www.chemteam.info/Chem-History/Hydrogen-Bond-1920/DotDiagram-p1431a.GIF

 

"in terms of the Lewis theory, a free pair of electrons on one water molecule might be able to exert sufficient force on a hydrogen held by a pair of electrons on another water molecule to bind the two molecules together. Structurally this may be represented as " (see right).

 

This was a major jolt to existing theory with the (correct) idea of the hydrogen atom taking part in two (at least partial) covalent bonds not easily accepted by some and remaining (mistakenly) unaccepted by a few up until the present day.

 

At about that time it was thought that of the two hydrogen bonds (donating) from each water molecule, one was stronger than the other [2470]; an idea that still resonates today [1604].

 

Later, on July 15, 1929 Linus Pauling (February 28, 1901 – August 19, 1994; Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954, Nobel Peace Prize in 1962) used the term 'hydrogen bond' in a letter to William Bragg (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1915), and reported in [99] as " two O's are joined by a hydrogen bond, as are the two F's in the acid fluoride ion, FHF - ". Pauling thought the hydrogen bond to be electrostatic in nature as (he thought) hydrogen could only form a single covalent bond.

 

These hydrogen bonds were shown responsible for some of the anomalous properties of water, such as high boiling and melting points.

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Footnotes

a Cavendish died in his Laboratory in 1810 just 30 minutes' walk from the present site of London South Bank University.. [Back]

 

b This was further confirmed by a later experiment performed by John Warltire and reported by Joseph Priestley. [Back]

 

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This page was established in 2015 and last updated by Martin Chaplin on 15 October, 2017


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