This Day in History – March 6th, 1869

In 1863 there were 56 known elements with a new element being discovered at a rate of approximately one per year. Other scientists had previously identified periodicity of elements. John Newlands described a Law of Octaves, noting their periodicity according to relative atomic weight in 1864, publishing it in 1865. His proposal identified the potential for new elements such as germanium. The concept was criticized and his innovation was not recognized by the Society of Chemists until 1887. Another person to propose a periodic table was Lothar Meyer, who published a paper in 1864 describing 28 elements classified by their valence, but with no prediction of new elements.

Dmitri MendeleevBut it was Dmitri Mendeleev who, on March 6th, 1869, presented the Russian Chemical Society, and the world, with the first periodic table. After becoming a teacher, Mendeleev wrote the definitive textbook of his time: Principles of Chemistry (two volumes, 1868–1870). As he attempted to classify the elements according to their chemical properties, he noticed patterns that led him to postulate his periodic table; he claimed to have envisioned the complete arrangement of the elements in a dream.

A very popular Russian story is that it was Mendeleev who came up with the 40% standard strength of vodka in 1894, after having been appointed Director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures with the assignment to formulate new state standards for the production of vodka. This story has, for instance, been used in marketing claims by the Russian Standard vodka brand that, “In 1894, Dmitri Mendeleev, the greatest scientist in all Russia, received the decree to set the Imperial quality standard for Russian vodka and the ‘Russian Standard’ was born”,or that the vodka is “compliant with the highest quality of Russian vodka approved by the royal government commission headed by Mendeleev in 1894.”

Dmitri Mendeleev Table

Mendeleev’s 1871 periodic table

While it’s true that Mendeleev in 1892 became head of the Archive of Weights and Measures in St Petersburg, and evolved it into a government bureau the following year, that institution was never involved in setting any production quality standards, but was issued with standardising Russian trade weights and measuring instruments. Furthermore, the 40% standard strength was introduced by the Russian government already in 1843, when Mendeleev was nine years old.

2-Mendeleev_VodkaThe basis for the whole story is a popular myth that Mendeleev’s 1865 doctoral dissertation “A Discourse on the combination of alcohol and water” contained a statement that 38% is the ideal strength of vodka, and that this number was later rounded to 40% to simplify the calculation of alcohol tax. However, Mendeleev’s dissertation was about alcohol concentrations over 70% and he never wrote anything about vodka.

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