periodic table heading

Higher and foundation tiers

Development of the periodic table of elements

The periodic table contains all the elements that have been discovered so far. The periodic table shown below contains all the elements up to element 88, radium. There are 118 known elements but after element 94; Plutonium, these elements are artificial and do not occur naturally.

periodic table showing the positions of the metals and non-metal elements.

The early periodic table

The modern periodic table is of great value to scientists. The elements are arranged according to their atomic number and placed into groups according to their chemical properties. This enables scientists to predict and work out how elements will react and behave even if they have never seen or used these elements before. However it took many years to arrive at this version of the periodic table and early periodic tables were very different to the one we are familiar with today.

You may have wondered why the periodic table is the shape it is, why not arrange the elements in say a square, a rectangle or even a circle! Well believe it or not once you get to know your way around the periodic table you will quickly realise why it is such a great asset to any chemistry student and why it is set out the way it is. Imagine for a moment you were starting to build a jigsaw but without a picture of what you are trying to build. You might start with all the edge pieces or put all the pieces of say the sky together or any pieces of say a building that you thought might be in the jigsaw picture.

Trying to build an early periodic table was like trying to build a giant jigsaw puzzle without a picture.

Well when trying to construct the periodic table over 150 years ago scientists faced a similar problem. New elements were being discovered all the time, they had some limited information about these elements; some of which was correct and some incorrect and of course they knew nothing about protons, neutrons or electrons or our ideas about the structure of atoms. Some of the elements that were put in early versions of the periodic table were in fact compounds and lots of elements still had not been discovered yet. So no wonder it was proving difficult to find any sense or pattern in how the elements reacted and how they might be grouped together in a periodic table. They had to piece all this new information together and try to find any common patterns in how the elements reacted. Like many new ideas they did not always get it right first time! They used the information they had available at the time to build the best models they could, like most scientific ideas as more evidence/information became available their ideas changed.

John Dalton - An early attempt at constructing a periodic table

Portrait of the English Scientist John Dalton

In 1803, John Dalton an English School teacher who was interested in physics, meteorology and chemistry (atomic theory) produced a periodic table of sorts. It contained a number of observations:

John Dalton's periodic table of elements.

The triads

Döbereiner triads A German chemist named Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner made some interesting observations in 1829 which would help chemists in developing a periodic table; but his ideas were not given enough weight and dismissed as a curiosity or coincidence. Döbereiner noticed that the properties of bromine seemed similar to those of chlorine and iodine. Bromine is a liquid and he placed it between chlorine; a gas and iodine; a solid. Döbereiner also noticed that the mass of bromine was approximately half-way between that of the element above it and the one below it- chlorine and iodine. Döbereiner also noticed similar patterns in the masses of the elements calcium (Ca), Strontium (Sr) and barium (Ba), as well as sulfur (S), selenium (Se) and tellurium (Te). These triads (groups of three elements) together with the atomic masses of the elements should have helped scientists identify patterns in the elements and to construct a periodic table to group them together in some related way.

John Newlands- The Law of Octaves

Portrait of the English chemist John Newlands In 1864 an English chemist named John Newlands published his periodic table, while it had many limitations it was one of the first attempts at arranging the known elements both in terms of their atomic weights (which we now recognise as relative atomic mass) and their chemical properties, but perhaps the most significant discovery for Newlands was his "Law of Octaves".

Newlands took all the known elements (around 50 in 1865) and arranged them in order of their atomic mass; as shown in his periodic table opposite. He noted that every eighth element had similar chemical properties e.g. starting with hydrogen and counting 8 we come to the element fluorine. The eighth element after fluorine is chlorine and so on.... However his observation that every eighth element had similar chemical properties only worked for the first 20 elements; after that it failed. For example the elements lithium, sodium and potassium all react violently with water but Newlands put the element copper, which does NOT react with water in the same group as these elements.

John Newlands' periodic table of elements.

There were other problems with his periodic table. In places Newlands had more than one element in a box in his periodic table and he put elements like iron in the same group as oxygen and sulfur when these elements have little in common. Newlands grouped these elements together in order to get them to fit his "Law of octaves" even though it was apparent that some elements in his groups were not similar at all, this was one of the main reasons why his periodic table was not immediately accepted by his peers. One of the other big mistakes he made in constructing his periodic table was that he assumed that all the elements had been discovered when in reality new elements were being discovered fairly regularly. His ideas were rejected by his peers and he was even ridiculed by some but his periodic table paved the way for Dmitri Mendeleev and his periodic table.

Dmitri Mendeleev

In 1869 the Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev improved on Newlands periodic table. Like Newlands he arranged the elements in order of their atomic masses and grouped elements with similar chemical properties together in their own groups, but unlike Newlands he assumed that there were still elements to be discovered and he left gaps for these undiscovered elements in his table. Not only that, he predicted the properties of some of these as yet undiscovered elements based on their position in his periodic table. When these unknown elements were finally discovered it was found that their properties were very similar to those predicted by Mendeleev.

Portrait of the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev

Part of Mendeleev's periodic table.

Part of Mendeleev's periodic table is shown opposite. It contains the elements boron (B) and aluminium (Al) in one group with their atomic masses. Underneath aluminium Mendeleev left a gap in his table for an element that he believed was as yet undiscovered. He named this undiscovered element eka-aluminium. Similarly underneath carbon (C) and silicon (Si) was yet another undiscovered element that Mendeleev named eka-silicon. In 1875 the element gallium (Mendeleev's eka-aluminium) was discovered and in 1886 the element germanium (Mendeleev's eka-silicon) was discovered. These two new elements had chemical properties and physical properties that were very close to Mendeleev's predicted properties. This suggested that Mendeleev's hypothesis and ideas on the structure of the periodic table were probably correct.

Te/I problem in Meneleev's periodic table.
However there were a few anomalies with Mendeleev's table e.g. Group 7 in the modern periodic table; the halogens contains the elements fluorine (F), chlorine (Cl), bromine (Br), iodine (I) and astatine (At). Group 6 is also shown in the diagram opposite. If you study the modern periodic table you may notice that as a general rule as you go from element number 1, hydrogen, to element number 2, helium and so on that generally the masses increase, however this is not the case for all elements. Element 52 tellurium and element 53 iodine are one example where this is not the case.

So if we arrange the elements in order of atomic mass as Mendeleev did, and not atomic number as in the modern periodic table then iodine and tellurium would have to swap places. There are other examples of this e.g. iron and cobalt would also have to swap places if the elements were arranged according to their masses. Mendeleev swapped the elements and put them in the correct group based on their chemical properties but did not know why he had to break his own rule regarding arranging them in order of their atomic mass.

It was not until much later following the work of scientists such Rutherford and Henry Moseley that the idea of atomic number instead of atomic mass as a way of arranging the elements that anomalies like the tellurium/iodine one were eventually solved. The modern periodic table we use today sorts the elements according to their atomic number and not their atomic mass.

Key Points

Practice questions

Check your understanding - Questions on the periodic table

Check your understanding - Quick Quiz on the development of the periodic table.