In the chemistry laboratory of the University of St. Andrews they have just found a school picture with a very early version of the periodic table of elements. It goes back to the 1880s
The storage room of the chemistry department of the Scottish university had not been properly cleaned since it opened its facilities in 1968. It took several months to put it back in order. The process ended in 2014, but the junk that they took out had not been examined until now. According to a press release published by the University of St. Andrews, among all the mess that had accumulated over the years there was a stash of rolled-up teaching documents.
When chemist Alan Aitken displayed one of these graphs, he saw an outdated version of the periodic table of the elements. At the top there was a title written in German: “Periodische Gesetzmässigkeit der Elemente nach Mendeleieff”, which translates as “Periodic regularity of the elements according to Mendeleev”. The board was extremely fragile, and some fragments crumbled into Aitken’s hands during the initial manipulation. The bad state of the table, together with its archaic view of the elements, made it suspect that it was very old.
A detailed investigation of the table and its origins has confirmed these suspicions. Yes, the letter is very old. It dates back to no less than 1885, according to the university. Not only that, right now it is the oldest known classroom chart that shows the periodic table of the elements.
The periodic table was first developed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, who reviewed his own work in 1871. The newly discovered table is quite similar to the revised version, but with important differences. As the St. Andrews statement explains:
Further investigation of the university’s financial records showed that Thomas Purdie, professor of chemistry from 1884 to 1909, purchased the table from a German catalog in October 1888. The table itself was manufactured in Vienna in 1885.
With the date and origin of the established letter, St. Andrews officials undertook the task of preserving the relic for posterity. The Special Collections team of the University was asked to carry out a restoration with funds from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust.
Working with care not to damage the table anymore, the restorers used brushes to remove dirt from the surface. Then they separated the letter very carefully from its heavy linen backing. Deionized water was applied to eliminate the years of discoloration and Japanese kozo paper and wheat starch paste were used to repair the notches and gaps in the table.
As a final step, the restorers created a full-size replica of the chart, which is now displayed at St. Andrews. As for the original, it rests safely in a room with controlled climate in the facilities of Special Collections.