Which chemical element was first discovered?

As 2019 has been designated the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements by the United Nations General Assembly, we’re celebrating all things elemental. In this article, we’ll look at which chemical element was first discovered.

Ancient chemical elements

There are really two answers to the question ‘which chemical element was first discovered?’ because there are a number of elements that we’ve known about since ancient times. Of course, they weren’t recognised as elements as we know them today, but sulphur (S), silver (Ag), tin (Sn), antimony (Sb), gold (Au), carbon (C) mercury (Hg), and lead (Pb) have all been known materials for thousands of years.

For example, we have evidence of the use of copper from as early as 9,000BC when it was used to make beads and ornaments, and gold artefacts and decorations have been dated to before 6,000BC.

Copper figures from ancient Peru

The ‘first’ chemical element

Phosphorous (P) was the first chemical element to be discovered after the ancient times by German alchemist Hennig Brand in 1669. At the time, Brand was trying to create the philosopher’s stone, a legendary alchemical substance that was thought to turn metal into gold. To do this, he was experimenting with urine by evaporating it to produce salts. Rather disgustingly, Brand left the urine to rot before boiling it into a paste, heating this paste, and passing the heat vapours through water. He believed that these vapours would then condense into gold. They didn’t.

However, a by-product of this grim experiment was a white substance that glowed in the dark and burned with a brilliant light. Brand called it phosphorus mirabilis, meaning ‘miraculous bearer of light’.

About phosphorous

There are two main forms of elemental phosphorus, white phosphorus and red phosphorus. Both are so reactive that they are never found as free elements, but phosphorous does occur naturally in minerals as phosphate, which can be found in the earth’s crust. 

The phosphorous cycle

Phosphorus is also found in the human body and makes up 1% of our body weight – phosphates are a component of DNA. Nowadays, the main industrial use of phosphorous is as a fertiliser, and it’s also used as a pesticide, additive, and nerve agent.

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