molecule: Evolution of Molecular Theory

The terms atom and molecule were used interchangeably until the early 19th cent. Initial experimental work with gases led to what is essentially the modern distinction. J. A. C. Charles and R. Boyle had shown that all gases exhibit the same relationship between a change in temperature or pressure and the corresponding change in volume. J. L. Gay-Lussac had shown that gases always combine in simple whole-number volume proportions and had rediscovered the earlier findings of Charles, which had not been published.

One early theorist was John Dalton, best known for his atomic theory. Dalton believed that gases were made up of tiny particles, which he thought were atoms. He thought that these atoms were stationary and in contact with one another and that heat was a material substance, called caloric, that was contained in shells around the atom (these shells of caloric were actually what was in contact). When a gas was heated, the amount of caloric was increased, the shells became larger, and the gas expanded. Dalton did not accept Gay-Lussac's findings about combining volumes of gases, perhaps because it could not be explained by his theory.

A different theory from Dalton's that could explain the combining volumes of gases was proposed by the Italian physicist Amadeo Avogadro in 1811. According to his theory, under given conditions of temperature and pressure, a given volume of any gas contains a definite number of particles. From the earlier observation that one volume of hydrogen gas and one volume of chlorine gas react to form two volumes of hydrogen chloride gas he deduced that the particles in gaseous hydrogen or chlorine could not be single atoms, but must be some combination of atoms. He called this combination a molecule. He reasoned that the two volumes of hydrogen chloride that are formed must contain twice as many particles as either single volume of hydrogen or chlorine. Thus, if there were 100 particles each of hydrogen and chlorine, there would be 200 particles of hydrogen chloride produced; but there could be only 100 particles produced if the original particles of hydrogen and chlorine were indivisible atoms, since each particle of hydrogen chloride contains both hydrogen and chlorine. An assumption that there are two atoms in a molecule of gaseous hydrogen or chlorine and one atom each of hydrogen and chlorine in a molecule of hydrogen chloride preserves both the hypothesis of indivisible atoms and the hypothesis of equal numbers of particles in equal volumes of gases. Similar reasoning would allow a larger even number of atoms in the molecules of hydrogen or chlorine, but Avogadro favored a rule of simplicity, using the smallest possible number. In the model of gases proposed by Avogadro, the particles were not in contact and much of the volume of the gas was empty space.

Avogadro's theory was not well accepted; most responses were very critical. Meanwhile, Dalton's theory prompted extensive experimentation and especially the determination of combining weights of the elements. Many shortcomings of Dalton's theory were uncovered, and although a number of modifications were suggested, none were very successful. It was not until 1858 that the Italian chemist Stanislao Cannizaro suggested a merging of Avogadro's and Dalton's theories. The acceptance of this revised theory was assisted by the acceptance by physicists at about the same time of the kinetic-molecular theory of gases that was first proposed in 1738 by Daniel Bernoulli.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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