A Timeline of When Elements Were Discovered and Who Discovered Them

The universe is full of some pretty cool stuff. But what makes up that stuff? Our detailed periodic table of elements timeline maps the history of humanity’s incredible discoveries of the stuff that makes up stuff!

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From the readily available copper to the noble gases hiding in the air we breathe, elements have been hiding in plain sight for eons. Chemical elements are the indivisible substances that make up the building blocks of matter — or, really, “stuff.” Made up of atoms with a certain number of protons, neutrons, and electrons, each one fits perfectly within its place on the periodic table of elements.

Timeline dates show us, though, that the journey of figuring all of this out has been a bumpy one. For one thing, our modern table wasn’t systematized until 1869 by Dmitri Mendeleev, whose table even featured blank spots for elements that hadn’t been discovered yet!

Element discovery dates range from ancient times to the modern era. Due to the availability of many common metal elements, our history of working with and using elements like gold, copper, and lead far predates the history of the periodic table. The timeline of the history of periodic table is sporadic, with some “discoveries” happening via ancient artifacts and others happening during a wave of chemistry discoveries in the 17th century. We also saw a huge explosion of scientific discovery of elements, for better and for worse, during the mid-20th century while bigger and bigger atoms were being worked with as part of nuclear weapons research. Check out the history of chemical elements and when they were discovered to see how our journey to understanding these combinations of protons, neutrons, and electrons has changed over the centuries!

The Discoverers of Periodic Elements

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What Was the First Element Discovered?

While it was not understood to be an element at that time, the first element discovered was copper (Cu) due to the fact that its oldest known use was in 9,000 B.C.E. and the oldest existing sample from that era was from 6,000 B.C.E. Also in antiquity, lead, gold, silver, iron, tin, carbon, and several other elements commonly found in nature were “discovered.” This was long before Democritus and his teacher Leucippus conceptualized atomic theory among the ancient Greeks and long, long before anyone had attempted to arrange a periodic table of elements. Discovery dates after antiquity include those elements that were chemically found. The first of those chemically found discoveries was in 1669, when Henning Brand discovered phosphorus by boiling urine in his quest to discover the philosopher’s stone.

What Is the Most Recent Element Discovered?

The latest element discovered wasn’t so much “discovered” as it was synthesized: tennessine (Ts). A Russian-American collaboration created the element in 2009, officially announcing it in 2010. This most recently discovered element was one of several that have been synthesized in labs in the 21st century, with others including Nihonium (named after Japan), Moscovium (named after Moscow), Oganesson (named after scientist Yuri Oganessian), and Livermorium (named after a U.S. federal research laboratory).

Are We Still Discovering New Elements?

Many people believe the discovery of chemical elements has slowed down since the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, but this is not the case. No one knows how heavy we can go, but theoretically, elements 119 and 120 are possible with current technology. They are likely not found in nature and exceedingly difficult to create. They would also require a new row to be added to the periodic table.

When Were All the Elements Discovered?

Our infographic shows when each element was discovered, but here is our list of elements in order of discovery written out as well.

List of Elements by Discovery Date

Copper
Cu

9000 B.C.E.

Lead
Pb

7000 B.C.E.

Gold
Au

6000 B.C.E.

Silver
Ag

5000 B.C.E.

Iron
Fe

5000 B.C.E.

Carbon
C

3500 B.C.E.

Tin
Sn

3500 B.C.E.

Sulfur
S

2000 B.C.E.

Mercury
Hg

2000 B.C.E.

Zinc
Zn

1000 B.C.E.

Arsenic
As

300 B.C.E.

Antimony
Sb

800 B.C.E.

Phosphorus
P

1669 C.E.

Cobalt
Co

1735

Platinum
Pt

1741

Nickel
Ni

1751

Bismuth
Bi

1753

Magnesium
Mg

1755

Hydrogen
H

1766

Oxygen
O

1771

Nitrogen
N

1772

Barium
Ba

1772

Chlorine
Cl

1774

Manganese
Mn

1774

Molybdenum
Mo

1778

Tungsten
W

1781

Tellurium
Te

1782

Strontium
Sr

1787

Zirconium
Zr

1789

Uranium
U

1789

Titanium
Ti

1791

Yttrium
Y

1794

Chromium
Cr

1794

Beryllium
Be

1798

Vanadium
V

1801

Niobium
Nb

1801

Tantalum
Ta

1802

Palladium
Pd

1802

Cerium
Ce

1803

Osmium
Os

1803

Iridium
Ir

1803

Rhodium
Rh

1804

Potassium
K

1807

Sodium
Na

1807

Calcium
Ca

1808

Boron
B

1808

Fluorine
F

1810

Iodine
I

1811

Lithium
Li

1817

Cadmium
Cd

1817

Selenium
Se

1817

Silicon
Si

1823

Aluminum
Al

1825

Bromine
Br

1825

Thorium
Th

1829

Lanthanum
La

1838

Erbium
Er

1843

Terbium
Tb

1843

Ruthenium
Ru

1844

Cesium
CS

1860

Rubidium
Rb

1861

Thallium
Tl

1861

Indium
In

1863

Helium
He

1868

Gallium
Ga

1875

Ytterbium
Yb

1878

Holmium
Ho

1878

Thulium
Tm

1879

Scandium
Sc

1879

Samarium
Sm

1879

Gadolinium
Gd

1880

Praseodymium
Pr

1885

Neodymium
Nd

1885

Germanium
Ge

1886

Dysprosium
Dy

1886

Argon
Ar

1894

Europium
Eu

1896

Krypton
Kr

1898

Neon
Ne

1898

Xenon
Xe

1898

Polonium
Po

1898

Radium
Ra

1898

Radon
Rn

1899

Actinium
Ac

1902

Lutetium
Lu

1906

Rhenium
Re

1908

Protactinium
Pa

1913

Hafnium
Hf

1922

Technetium
Tc

1937

Francium
Fr

1939

Neptunium
Np

1940

Astatine
At

1940

Plutonium
Pu

1940

Promethium
Pm

1942

Curium
Cm

1944

Americium
Am

1944

Berkelium
Bk

1949

Californium
Cf

1950

Einsteinium
Es

1952

Fermium
Fm

1952

Mendelevium
Md

1955

Lawrencium
Lr

1961

Nobelium
No

1966

Rutherfordium
Rf

1969

Dubnium
Db

1970

Seaborgium
Sg

1974

Bohrium
Bh

1981

Meitnerium
Mt

1982

Hassium
Hs

1984

Darmstadtium
Ds

1994

Roentgenium
Rg

1994

Copernicium
Cn

1994

Flerovium
Fl

1999

Livermorium
Lv

2000

Oganesson
Og

2002

Moscovium
Mc

2003

Nihonium
Nh

2004

Tennessine
Ts

2009

Our periodic table discovery timeline maps the journey of when we discovered some of the coolest metal substances ever. Most materials on the periodic table are some form of metal, and the discoveries of the periodic elements allowed us to create more and more powerful metals and alloys over time, enabling us to create stronger and harder metals as well as better metal buildings. Who knows? Perhaps the volatile, atomically heavier elements we synthesize will let us build cooler and more amazing stuff!

Photo sources:

Photos by Jurii (Wikimedia.org)

Photos by Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements (Wikimedia.org)

Photos by Robert M. Lavinsky (Wikimedia.org)

Photos by W. Oelen (Wikimedia.org)

Photos by Unknown (Wikimedia.org)

Original works by Greg Robson (Wikimedia.org)

“Gold (Nevada, USA) 1” photo by James St. John (Flickr)

“Element mercury (HG), liquid form” photo by Bionerd (Wikimedia.org)

Zosimos photo by Rvalette (Wikimedia.org)

“Crystals of pure platinum...” photo by Periodictableru (Wikimedia.org)

“Das chemische Element und Metall Wismut...” photo by Alchemist-hp (Wikimedia.org)

“A chunk of vapor-deposited magnesium crystals...” by Warut Roonguthai (Wikimedia.org)

Mangnanese photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari (Wikimedia.org)

“Hydrogen lamp” photo by UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences (Flickr)

“Liquid nitrogren...” photo by Cory Doctorow (Flickr)

“I mixed bleach and muriatic acid...” photo by Larenmclane (Wikimedia.org)

“Niobium crystal...” photo by Dnn87 (Wikimedia.org)

“Cluster of osmium...” photo by Periodictableru (Wikimedia.org)

“Potassium pearls...” photo by Unknown (Wikimedia.org)

“Boron...” photo by Xvazquez (Wikimedia.org)

“crystals of flourite...” photo by Parent Gèry (Wikimedia.org)

“600px-Lanthanum-2” photo by GrrlScientist (Flickr)

“Erbium...” photo by Tomihahndorf (Wikimedia.org)

“Cesium/Caesium...” photo by Dnn87 (Wikimedia.org)

“Gallium crystals..” photo by en:user:foobar (Wikimedia.org)

“Crystal of Scandium...” photo by JanDerChemiker (Wikimedia.org)

“enhanced Bohr model...” original work by Ahazard.sciencewriter (Wikimedia.org)

“Astatine...” photo by Elahe81 (Wikimedia.org)

“A small disc of Am-241...” photo by Bionerd (Wikimedia.org)

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