Magnesium: historical information

  • Discoveror: Sir Humphrey Davy
  • Place of discovery: England
  • Date of discovery: 1755
  • Origin of name : from the Greek word "Magnesia", a district of Thessaly.

In 1618 a farmer at Epsom in England attempted to give his cows water from a well. This they refused to drink because of the water's bitter taste. However the farmer noticed that the water seemed to heal scratches and rashes. The fame of Epsom salts spread. Eventually they were recognised to be magnesium sulphate, MgSO4. Black recognized magnesium as an element in 1755. It was isolated by Davy in 1808 who electrolysed a mixture of magnesia (magnesium oxide, MgO) and mercuric oxide (HgO). Davy's first suggestion for a name was magnium but the name magnesium is now used.

Sometime prior to the autumn of 1803, the Englishman John Dalton was able to explain the results of some of his studies by assuming that matter is composed of atoms and that all samples of any given compound consist of the same combination of these atoms. Dalton also noted that in series of compounds, the ratios of the masses of the second element that combine with a given weight of the first element can be reduced to small whole numbers (the law of multiple proportions). This was further evidence for atoms. Dalton's theory of atoms was published by Thomas Thomson in the 3rd edition of his System of Chemistry in 1807 and in a paper about strontium oxalates published in the Philosophical Transactions. Dalton published these ideas himself in the following year in the New System of Chemical Philosophy. The symbol used by Dalton for magnesium is shown below. [See History of Chemistry, Sir Edward Thorpe, volume 1, Watts & Co, London, 1914.]

Dalton's symbol for magnesium

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