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by By Ed Buch, CSI, AIA,

Periodic Tales

BuchNotes #57, Dec. 1, 2014

Periodic Tales, a Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc, is the perfect antidote to a rigorous high school or college chemistry class.  This is not a “chemistry”Periodic Tales, a Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc


book in the usual sense; it doesn’t use a single chemical equation in its entire 428 pages.  Instead, the author, Englishman Hugh Aldersey-Williams, treats us to fascinating insights on most of the elements from hydrogen (1) to ununoctium (118), describing how and where they were discovered, how many of them have been used as materials in buildings, and how they have been connected to history, literature, and art.

Why is chemistry important to those of us involved in design and construction?  Understanding the chemical properties of materials is essential in their selection for use in buildings, especially when they are used in combination with other materials.  One of the most prominent specifiers and a former chief of specifications at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Harold J. Rosen, PE, Hon. CSI, was a chemical engineer by education.  In addition to authoring books on specifications writing, he wrote the monthly specifications column in Progressive Architecture magazine for many years.  Surely his background in chemistry was critical to his interest in materials and to his success in selecting materials and preparing specifications in a time before master specifications libraries existed.

The periodic table of the elements was developed by Dmitrii Mendeleev in 1869.  The periodic table as Mendeleev initially proposed it, had 63 elements.  These were organized using the atomic number of each element, that is, the number of protons in the nuclei of their atoms.  They were arranged in ascending order in rows, (periods), and then put in columns, (groups), using their chemical affinity or “relatedness”, (the right most column in the table, containing the noble gasses, is probably the most familiar group).  This framework has been useful in predicting the existence of new elements, both naturally occurring and manmade elements, that were undiscovered at the time the table was first laid out.  The same table is in use today although the number of elements has increased to 118.

Here is a sample of the kinds of topics included in the book:  Elements discovered in the 18th Century were named after figures in classical mythology and in the 19th Century they were named after the country where they were discovered.  It’s interesting to note that Mendeleev was the first chemist to have an element named after him but this wasn’t until 1955, 50 years after his death.  Historical periods can be loosely defined by certain elements or metals:  The Roman Empire by bronze, the Spanish Empire by gold, the Britain Empire by iron, and the 20th Century by uranium and plutonium.  Swedish geologists discovered a disproportionately large number of elements due to their nation’s large mining industry.  Gold is the only metal found in nature in its elemental state.  The discovery in 1747 at Abraham Darby’s foundry in England, that adding small amounts of the element carbon to iron, made it less brittle and better for use in railways.  This was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  The burning of sulfur was the “brimstone” in the Biblical “fire and brimstone”.  The German chemist Fritz Haber weaponized chlorine gas for use in World War I, (and killed thousands in the process), was in later years awarded a Nobel Prize for converting ammonia to nitrogen.  The element bromine was the “Bromo” in the antacid “Bromo Seltzer”.  In 1797 the English chemist Joseph Priestley added CO2 to water creating carbonated water.  This was successfully commercialized by Joseph Sweppes.  Antoine Lavoisier was instrumental in understanding oxygen’s role in life and as a cause of decay, “oxidation” or rust.  Radium was used commercially in the early 20th Century until it was discovered to be a health hazard.  Copper sheets were proposed for their light weight and durability by Sir Christopher Wren for covering the new dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London as it was rebuilt following the fire of 1666.  To his dismay more traditional and very much heavier lead sheets were used instead.  Zinc was first used in the 1830s in architectural applications by the German architect Frederick Schinkel.  Aluminum wasn’t available commercially until 1886 when it was first separated from its ore electrolytically.  It was attractive for its light weight, its shininess, and its electrical conductivity and was used to cap the top 10” of the Washington Monument when this was completed in 1884.

The periodic table of the elements ranks up there alongside the psychometric chart, developed by Willis Carrier in the 1920s, as one of the greatest graphical depictions of physical phenomena ever created.  Periodic Tales provides great insight to the table and the elements that inhabit it.  The book was published in 2011 by HarperCollins. It includes some historical photographs including one of Mendeleev’s first periodic tables.  Interestingly it does not include a modern periodic table.  For that you’ll have to look elsewhere.


Ed Buch, CSI, CCS, AIA,  Los Angeles, CA


The Inland Empire Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute