The chemical symbol is an abbreviation of the name of each chemical element discovered and expressed in the periodic table. The chemical symbol system used today was introduced by the Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius in 1814 .
A few years earlier, the English chemist John Dalton had presented a similar system, based partially on abbreviations of the names of the elements and the alchemical symbols most used so far.
Berzelius’ proposal had more acceptance among chemists because it allowed combining the writing of chemical elements with ordinary text. Furthermore, this new system avoided many of the confusions generated by the previous alchemical symbols. In summary, the new system simplified the writing and presentation of scientific treatises.
Much of the chemical symbols come from the Greek letters corresponding to the name of the element in Latin. Others derive from the name in French, English, Russian, or German. The letter that starts the chemical symbol is specified with uppercase, while the second (in which cases it is used) is lowercase.
Chemical symbols help everyone regardless of the language they use to identify the element according to the chemical universal symbol given to each of the elements.
The symbols of some of the best known chemical elements are:
- H for hydrogen
- Cu for copper
- I have for helium
- F for phosphor
Chemical symbols are also used to abbreviate the elements that make up a certain matter, for example, water is made up of two molecules of hydrogen and 1 of oxygen, which is why it carries the chemical symbol of H2O.
The history of chemical symbols is linked to the development of chemistry .
Today’s chemistry was preceded by years of unscientific experimentation in the proto-science known as alchemy. Alchemy was a discipline practiced since ancient times that through a multitude of processes related to experimentation with materials pursued objectives such as the transmutation of metals into gold , the creation of a hypothetical elixir of immortality or the possibility of creating elixirs to cure any disease.
Despite the little scientific basis of alchemy, alchemists were the first to propose possible classifications of substances and to develop symbolic systems for their identification. Much of alchemy was based on the theory that all substances in the universe could be formed from the five classical elements: water, earth, air, fire, and a fifth hypothetical element called ether. Often these five elements were related to the five Platonic solids. Alchemists also had a basic understanding of metals, the origin and characteristics of which related to specific planets and stars. For example, gold was related to the Sun , silver to the Moon , etc.
Alchemists assigned different alchemical symbols to these five elements. From their combination and together with newly created symbols, alchemists developed symbols for all known substances. This first symbol system was never fully shared among all alchemists. Although it is true that the most elemental substances were generally represented with the same symbols, it was also common for each alchemist to develop his own symbolism.
The border between alchemy and chemistry began to be drawn thanks to the innovations introduced by Antoine Lavoisier . Lavoisier was one of the first scientists to systematize the study of chemistry in the 18th century . For example, one of Lavoisier’s discoveries was the law of conservation of mass. This law says that in every ordinary chemical reaction the mass of initial substances is equal to the mass of substances obtained.
Lavoisier realized that one of the main problems in chemistry at the time was that there was no clear and uniform nomenclature to identify different substances. With the intention of solving this problem, he presented in 1787 a treatise called the Chemical Nomenclature Method . In it, Lavoisier ruled out continuing to use the five classic elements as the basis of chemistry and instead presented a classification of 33 essential substances.
In addition, it introduced a suffix system to indicate certain characteristics of these substances. The method presented by Lavoisier allowed for a much more systematic classification of substances and was quickly adopted by much of chemists worldwide.
A few years after Lavoisier’s first proposed nomenclature, the English chemist John Dalton published a first set of symbols to abbreviate elemental chemicals. John Dalton expanded Lavoisier’s list of 33 substances to 36. Dalton relied on substance abbreviations and pre-existing alchemical symbols to design the following symbol system for chemical elements:
Dalton’s proposal was a step in the right direction but did not have the approval of all chemists and did not establish clear rules to expand the catalog of symbols in the event of discovering new elements.
To solve this problem, the Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius proposed in 1814 a new simplified system to symbolize the elements. Berzelius limited the symbol of each chemical element to an abbreviation consisting of one or two letters.
Instead of using the most common English names for each substance, Berzelius proposed using a Latin name for each element. This decision was consistent with progress in other disciplines. For example, in the field of botany and biology too, the classification of species had begun using Latin names. Furthermore, at that time Latin was considered the main and shared language of scientific language.
Berzelius’ nomenclature was based on choosing the first letter of the element’s Latin name and adding a representative second letter if necessary to avoid confusion.
For example, Berzelius’s classification included a group of materials called metalloids. Equivalent to non-metallic elements. This group of elements had to be represented by a single letter. These included hydrogen (H), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), boron (B), carbon (C), phosphorus (P), and sulfur (S). In case one metalloid element had the same initial letter as another, the second letter had to be included to differentiate them. This was the case of Silicon (Si) since it coincided with sulfur (S).
Within the group of metals, the first two letters were used to define chemical symbols. For example, cobalt was represented by Co (Latin Cobaltum) and copper by Cu (Latin Cuprum ).
In case that between two metals the first two letters coincided, the symbol was created from the first letter and the first distinct consonant. For example, for the elements antimony (Latin Stibium ) and tin (Latin Stannum ) the symbols according to this rule could not be St due to coincidence, but rather they should be Sb and Sn, respectively.
The great advantage of this new system is that it allowed to continue expanding the number of symbols in a coherent way as new elements were discovered. It also allowed the naming of the elements to be integrated into scientific texts, without the need to include graphic symbols.
This new system was quickly accepted by the scientific community and has continued in use until today. During this time the number of elements and the corresponding symbols has been expanded to reach 118 on the current periodic table.