Invented in Bed: Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of Elements

By Alyse Borkan  |  Jul 18, 2014
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Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev was a Russian chemist and inventor born in the small Siberian village of Tobolsk in 1834. After attending the Main Pedagogical Institute of Saint Petersburg in 1850, the young Mendeleev grew fascinated by the basic chemical elements, awed by their potential to reveal the secrets of the universe. With his contemporaries discovering new elements at a rapid rate (by 1863 there were 56 elements with an average of one new element being discovered each year), Mendeleev became convinced that there was some natural order underlying their existence–some definitive pattern. Distraught by his inability to unlock this elusive order, Mendeleev took time away from his studies to vacation with family, hoping distraction would give new life to his fruitless investigations.

It soon became apparent, however, that a simple trip wouldn’t calm Mendeleev’s academic intensity: it is said that he spent three days and three nights without sleep, locked in his room, desperately trying to grasp how one might group the elements in a meaningful way.

On February 17, 1869, exhausted by lack of sleep and lack of progress, Mendeleev listened distractedly to his family playing chamber music as he dozed off in the room next door. Falling into a deep sleep, Mendeleev suddenly saw the individual atomic elements drifting before him. They swayed to the sound of the chamber music, aligning themselves in unique and beautiful patterns that varied slightly in time with the songs being played. Slowly but surely, they began to flow together in the shape of a table in which each building block was placed according its atomic weight, starting with the lightest and ending with the heaviest element sinking into their rightful positions. When the table was complete, Mendeleev awoke with a start, understanding that what he had just dreamt could be the answer he had so long been looking for.

He jotted down the table from his dreams and, as he later explained to a close friend, his vision was nearly flawless: “I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required…Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.”

Mendeleev’s dream proved essential to the development of science. All it took was pausing from his obsessive activities and letting go, giving way to the sleep that brought his latent knowledge of the periodic elements to light.

— Lara Andersson

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