Physics and Chemistry

Chemical Elements

Who proposed the phlogiston theory?

Phlogiston was a name used in the eighteenth century to identify a supposed substance given off during the process of combustion. The phlogiston theory was developed in the early 1700s by the German chemist and physicist Georg Ernst Stahl (1660–1734).

In essence, Stahl held that combustible material such as coal or wood was rich in a material substance called “phlogiston.” What remained after combustion was without phlogiston and could no longer burn. The rusting of metals also involved a transfer of phlogiston. This accepted theory explained a great deal previously unknown to chemists. For instance, metal smelting was consistent with the phlogiston theory, as was the fact that charcoal lost weight when burned. Thus the loss of phlogiston either decreased or increased weight.

The French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier demonstrated that the gain of weight when a metal turned to a calx was just equal to the loss of weight of the air in the vessel. Lavoisier also showed that part of the air (oxygen) was indispensable to combustion, and that no material would burn in the absence of oxygen. The transition from Stahl’s phlogiston theory to Lavoisier’s oxygen theory marks the birth of modern chemistry at the end of the eighteenth century.


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