The Periodic Table in the Twentieth Century:
Selected from a gift from William Drenttel (1953-2013)
Currently on view in the Medical Historical Library
Post and exhibit by Charlotte Abney, graduate student in the Program in the History of Science and Medicine
For centuries, alchemists and chemists had created tables to organize the elements by their physical and chemical properties, though not until the mid-nineteenth century did scientists agree upon the basic modern conception of elements and atoms. In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev published a table that organized the known elements by atomic weight into four vertical columns, so that elements with similar properties lined up horizontally in groups. Though several others had created similar tables, one of Mendeleev's primary innovations was the addition of blank spaces where properties did not line up evenly, anticipating elements yet to be discovered.
The twentieth century saw not only the addition of those elements and more, but also the development of concepts from subatomic particles to radioactivity and quantum physics. As the common understanding of the nature of the atom changed, table designers changed its components and format to incorporate more information.
Atomic number came into use following the work of Henry Moseley in 1913 and replaced atomic weight as the ordering principle of the table during the 1920s. Consensus among chemists, authors, and table designers took time to build, and even such lasting changes were incorporated unevenly and over several decades, including the designation and placement of the lanthanides and actinides, beginning in the 1940s; the division of the metals, nonmetals, and metalloids, in the 1950s; and placement of the noble gases on the right edge of the table, rather than the left, in the 1960s. Throughout the development of the standardized periodic table, scientists have also used other designs and formats that provide alternative or superior visualizations of various elemental patterns.
The current version of the periodic table in common use no longer varies in its structural design. This standardization has allowed it to become familiar cultural shorthand for laboratory science and innovation, while its design elements have come to represent scientific thinking, the breakdown of ideas into fundamental elements, and the organization of concepts into groups and families.
The materials in this exhibit are part of the recently donated collection of William Drenttel (1953-2013). A graphic designer with an interest in chemistry, Drenttel collected over 200 books, advertisements, collectibles, and other objects documenting the development of the periodic table and the incorporation of its components into graphic design spanning 150 years. The collection has come to the Medical Historical Library by the generous donation of Drenttel's wife, Jessica Helfand. The Medical Historical Library collects in medicine and the sciences, including chemistry.
A 1905 version of the Periodic Table