Origin and History of Oxygen Study by Humans

Robert H. Goddard and a liquid oxygen-gasoline rocket

Oxygen is the chemical element with atomic number 8 and the symbol O. It is a highly reactive nonmetal and a known oxidizing agent that readily forms oxides with most elements and other compounds. Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe by mass.

Origin and History of Oxygen study

One of the first recorded experiments on the relationship between air and combustion was conducted by the early 2nd century BCE Greek writer on mechanics, Philo of Byzantium. In his well-known work Pneumatica, Philo noted that inverting a vessel over a burning candle and circling the vessel’s neck with water gave rise to some water flying into the neck.

Philo mistakenly inferred that components of the air in the vessel were transformed into the classical element fire and thus could jump through pores in the glass. Many centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci developed on Philo’s work by noting that a portion of air is consumed during respiration and combusting.

In the mid-17th century CE, scientist Robert Boyle demonstrated that air is needed for combustion. English chemist John Mayow (1641 CE–1679 CE) improved this work by showing that fire requires only a portion of air that he famously called spiritus nitroaereus. In one latter experiment, he discovered that placing either a lit candle or a mouse in a closed container over water caused the stored water to rise and displace one-fourteenth of the air’s volume before annihilating the subjects. From this, he inferred that nitroaereus is consumed in both combustion and respiration.

Phlogiston theory

Ole Borch, Robert Hooke, Pierre Bayen, and Mikhail Lomonosov all produced oxygen in experiments in the 17th and 18th centuries CE, but none of them recognized it as a basic chemical element. This may have been partly due to the prevalence of the theory of corrosion and combustion called the phlogiston theory, which was back then the favored interpretation of those processes.

Phlogiston’s theory asserted that all flammable materials were made of two parts. One part, called phlogiston, was tipped off when the substance containing it was heated, while the dephlogisticated part was thought to be its proper form or calx.


Polish philosopher, alchemist, and physician Michael Sendivogius in his work (1604 CE), described a material contained in the air, referring to it as the food of life (‘cibus vitae’), and this material is identical with oxygen.

Sendivogius, during his trials performed between 1598 CE and 1604 CE, properly recognized that the element is equivalent to the gaseous waste and byproduct released by the thermic decomposition of potassium nitrate.

The isolation of oxygen and the conventional association of the substance to that part of air required for life lend enough weight to the discovery of oxygen by Sendivogius. However, this discovery of Sendivogius was frequently denied by the generations of chemists and scientists who succeeded him.

Lavoisier’s contribution

Lavoisier ultimately conducted the first satisfactory quantitative experiments on oxidation and gave the first accurate explanation of how combustion works. He used these and related experiments, all started in 1774 CE, to disprove the phlogiston theory and confirm that Priestley’s substance was a chemical element.

Lavoisier renamed the discovered ‘vital air’ oxygène in 1777 CE from the Greek roots ὀξύς (oxys) (acid, “sharp,” from the taste of acids) and -γενής (-genēs) (producer, begetter) because he wrongly believed that oxygen was a constituent of all acids.

Oxygen entered the English language despite complaints by English scientists and the fact that the Englishman Priestley had first confined the gas and written about it.

An experiment setup for preparation of oxygen in academic laboratories

Modern Study

In 1891 CE, Scottish chemist and scientist James Dewar was able to generate enough liquid oxygen for study. The first commercially viable process for creating liquid oxygen was developed in 1895 CE by German engineer Carl von Linde and British engineer William Hampson. Both men lowered the air temperature until it liquefied and then extracted the component gases by properly boiling them off one at a time and then capturing them individually. Later, in 1901 CE, oxyacetylene welding was illustrated for the first time by burning a mixture of compressed O2 and acetylene. This method of cutting metal and welding later became common.

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