The Father of Modern Chemistry

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier was born on August 26, 1743.  He studied law to please his wealthy family, but his passion was chemistry.  As a student during the Enlightenment, he declared, “I am young and eager for glory.”

At the time, chemistry was more of a superstition than a science.  People still believed in Aristotle’s classical elements of earth, water, air and fire.  Evaporation could convert water into earth.  And combustion and rust were caused by a fire-like element called phlogiston (Greek for “burning flame”).

Lavoisier applied very precise measurements to his experiments.  He discovered that the sediment from evaporation actually came from the inside of the container.  He discovered that combustion is caused by oxygen (which he named after the Greek for “acid former”).  He established the law of conservation of mass.  His 13-year-old wife learned English just so she could translate research for him, and art just so she could illustrate his works.

Lavoisier invented the chemical nomenclature still used today, identifying 55 substances as true “elements” (substances that could not be broken down further), including hydrogen, carbon and phosphorus.  He wrote, “I have tried to suppress the use of reasoning, which is often an unreliable instrument, in order to follow the torch of observation and of experiment.”  Overall, he changed chemistry from a qualitative science to a quantitative one, elevating it to the level of physics and mathematics.

Lavoisier also had his faults.  He tried to take credit for the work of other scientists, including Joseph Priestly.  His list of elements included light and caloric.  And he believed that the existence of atoms was philosophically impossible.

But Lavoisier’s greatest fault was his status as a nobleman and a tax collector.  He was executed by guillotine in 1794 at the height of the French Revolution, despite appeals in the name of science.  Joseph Lagrange declared, “It took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it.”

Agilent first entered the analytical instrumentation field in 1965 when HP acquired F&M Scientific Corporation.  Founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard believed that HP’s expertise in measuring electrical signals could be applied to measuring chemicals and molecules.

Today, Agilent is a global industry leader in providing laboratory solutions for applied chemical markets, including chemical, energy, the environment, food safety and forensics.  For the past three years, Agilent chemical analysis instruments have won the prestigious R&D 100 Award for the year’s most technologically significant products.

“In the nearly 50 years that Agilent has been serving the applied chemical markets, we have helped customers improve the world’s quality of life through safe food, clean air and water, and efficient energy use,” says Mike McMullen, president of Agilent’s Chemical Analysis business. “What I’m most proud of is our team’s constant exploration and discovery of what’s possible – much like Lavoisier himself.”


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