The discovery of lithium

  • F. Neil Johnson


Off the eastern coast of Sweden in the immediate vicinity of Stockholm there are numerous islands, for the most part rocky and rich in certain minerals. On the island of Utö, iron ore was mined during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it was in the waste material excavated from the iron mines that the ores containing the element lithium were first found. Their discoverer was Joze Bonifacio de Andrada e Silva,1 a Brazilian scientist undertaking a geological and mineralogical expedition to a number of European countries under the auspices of the Portuguese Academy of Sciences.


Tartaric Acid Lithium Salt Lithium Metal Lithium Therapy Ammonium Carbonate 
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Notes and references

  1. 2.
    De Andrada, J. B. (1800) ‘Kurze Angabe der Eigenschaften und Kennzeichen einiger neuen Fossilien aus Schweden und Norwegen, nebst einingen chemischen Bemerkungen über dieselben’, Scherer’s Allgerneine Journal der Chemie, 4, 28–39.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Clarke, E. D. (1818) ‘Account of some remarkable minerals recently brought to this country from the island of Jean Maven in the Greenland seas, north latitude 71°. Also a description and analysis of a substance called petalite from Sweden’, Annals of Philosophy, 11, 194–98.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Clarke, ‘Account of some remarkable minerals’, 198 (note 5).Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    Vauquelin, N.-L. (1817) ‘Note sur une nouvelle espèce d’alcali minéral’, Annales de Chimie et de Physique, 2, 284–88.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Ibid., 284.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    It is not clear where the sample of petalite which Arfwedson analysed actually came from. It is possible that Svendenstjerna supplied it, but it could also be that Arfwedson, with his training in mining, obtained it himself from the island of Utö. Berzelius may already have possessed quantities of petalite and there is some evidence that he may have given samples to various colleagues, in addition to Arfwedson. Thus, H. G. Soderbaum in his three-volume work Berzelius Levnadsteckning published between 1929 and 1931 by Almqvist and Wiksells, Uppsala, and in his Jac Berzelius Bref (a collection of Berzelius’ letters) published between 1912 and 1914, also by Almqvist and Wiksells, records that Berzelius was quick to communicate Arfwedson’s findings to Wilhelm Hisinger, who was also analysing petalite, and to others, including Count Berthollet and Dr Marcet, who may also have been looking into the matter.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Arfwedson, A. (1818) ‘Undersokning af nagra vid Utö Jernmalmsbrott forekommande Fossilier, och af ett deri funnet eget Eldfast Alkali’, Afhandlingar i Fysick, Kemi och Minerologi, 6, 145–72. The report was made available to a wider public when it appeared the following year, in 1819, in French (‘Analyses de quelques minéraux de la mine d’Utö en Suède, dans lesquels on a trouvé un nouveau alcali fixé’, Annales de Chimie et de Physique, 10, 82–107).Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Vauquelin, ‘Note sur une nouvelle espèce d’alcali minéral’ (note 9).Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    Ibid., 284–85.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Clarke, E. D. (1818) ‘Further account of petalite, together with the analysis of another new Swedish mineral found at Gryphytta, in the province of Westmania, in Sweden, &c.’, Annals of Philosophy, 11, 365–68.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    Ibid., 365.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    Thomson, T. (1818) ‘History of physical science from the commencement of the year 1817. Part I’, Annals of Philosophy, 12, 1–53.Google Scholar
  13. 22.
    Ibid., 16.Google Scholar
  14. 23.
    The practice of giving a single name to a compound was at that time widespread and only fell into eventual disuse following the introduction of Berzelius’ symbols for the chemical elements, which paved the way for a more systematic approach to the combination of elements. Sir Humphry Davy (see note 32) gave the names potassium and sodium to the metallic bases of potash and soda. Lithion is to lithium as potash is to potassium.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 24.
    Gmelin, C. G. (1820) ‘Analysis of petalite, and examination of the chemical properties of lithia’, Annals of Philosophy, 15, 341–51.Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    Clarke, ‘Account of some remarkable minerals’ (note 5).Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    Kobell, F. von (1857) ‘Biography of Johann Nepomuk von Fuchs’, American Journal of Science, 23, 95–101.Google Scholar
  18. 29.
    Ibid., 99.Google Scholar
  19. 30.
    According to Jagnaux, R. (1891) Histoire de la Chimie (Paris: Baudry).Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    Davy, H. (1807) ‘The Bakerian Lecture, on some new phenomena of chemical changes produced by electricity, particularly the decomposition of the fixed alkalies, and the exhibition of new substances which constitute their bases; and on the general nature of alkaline bodies’, Philosophical Transactions, 98, 1–44. This long and detailed article gave accounts of Davy’s isolation of sodium and potassium, but not, of course, of lithium which had yet to be discovered.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 34.
    Brande, W. T. (1821) Manual of Chemistry, 2nd edn (London: John Murray).Google Scholar
  22. 35.
    Ibid., Vol. 2, 57.Google Scholar
  23. 36.
    Bunsen, R. and Matthieson, A. (1855) ‘Dastellung des Lithiums’, Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 94, 107–10. In 1860, lithium was used by Bunsen in the development of the first flame spectroscope and in 1862 Robert Bunsen published the first description of lithium determination by spectroscopic means in his article, ‘Über Benutzung der Flammenspektren bei der chemischen Analyse’, Verhandlungen des Naturhistorisch-medicinischen Vereins zu Heidelberg, 2, 31–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© F. Neil Johnson 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • F. Neil Johnson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of LancasterUK

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