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How Was Nitrogen Discovered?


As early as 1674, scientists discovered that air was made up of several components and was not a single element. John Mayow, an English physician, proved this by demonstrating that some parts of air supported combustion but other parts did not.

By the late 1700s, scientists in general were discovering how to capture air, store it and separate it into components. In 1772, Scottish botonist Daniel Rutherford was working on separating air and specifically trying to discover what makes things burn.

Rutherford’s Experiment

Rutherford put a mouse in a jar with no air holes and left it there until it died. He then burned a candle in the same container until the flame went out. Next, he put phosphorus into the container and burned it until it quit burning. When it became apparent that nothing else would burn, he passed the air through an alkaline solution to remove all carbon dioxide. What was left was an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that would not support life or combustion. Rutherford referred to it as “noxious air.”

Well-known English scientist and discoverer of hydrogen, Henry Cavendish, was also working on the separation of air in 1772. He isolated nitrogen and called it “burnt air” or “phlogisticated air.” At the same time, Carl Scheele, a Swedish pharmacist, also isolated nitrogen from air.

Rutherford published his results in 1772. Scheele published his study results in 1777. Today, almost equal credit for the discovery of nitrogen is given to Rutherford and Scheele. Most scientists believe that Cavendish discovered nitrogen before Rutherford or Sheele. Unfortunately, Cavendish did not publish results of his study so does not get formal credit for the discovery.

Role of Chaptal and Dalton

The element was called by various names until 1790. In that year, French chemist Jean Antoine Claude Chaptal named the element nitrogen.

In early 1803, English scientist John Dalton published an explanation of some of the elements and defined the chemical composition of nitrogen. He created the symbol “N” for nitrogen and assigned it number “7” as its atomic weight in the periodic table.



Journal of Chemical Education; Weeks, ME
Daniel Rutherford and the Discovery of Nitrogen
1934; Volume: 11; No: 2, Page: 101

Radiochemistry Society
Periodic Table of Elements: Nitrogen

Discovery of Nitrogen

NCAR-Atmospheric Chemistry Division
Daniel Rutherford-Discovered Nitrogen in 1772

Shectman, Jonathan
Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments ,Inventions, and Discoveries of the 18th Century
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. Print.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Encyclopedia Britannica
John Dalton

Glossary of Terms

Alkaline: having the properties of or containing an alkali

Noxious: physically harmful or destructive to living beings.

Phlogiston: the hypothetical principle of fire regarded formerly as a material substance.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

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