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Stories about Mendeleev

Dimitri Mendeleev is principally remembered today for his work on the periodic table. But there was more to this scientist than systematising the elements. Richard Brock takes a look at Mendeleev's eclectic career which included a number of less well-known projects including selling a range of autographed barometers, planning an Arctic expedition, making a balloon ascent and introducing the metric system to Russia.

After growing up in Siberia, Mendeleev aged 15 travelled 2000 kilometres to Moscow with his mother to enrol at the university, only to be rejected. They then travelled to St Petersburg where Mendeleev trained to be a science teacher. After teaching for a few years, he began to carry out research but retained his interest in education. It is reported that he chose to ride in the third-class compartments of trains so that he could share his research with the travelling workers.

Multiple interests

Mendeleev worked on many different areas during his career including the development of an icebreaker and the invention of smokeless gunpowder. These wide interests could distract him from his most important projects, so much so that in 1869 he delegated an early presentation on the periodic table to a colleague so that he could inspect cheese-making cooperatives.

Mendeleev’s insights into the arrangement of elements contributed to the development of the modern version of the periodic table, but a number of his other ideas have not stood the test of time so well.

Despite the contemporary understanding of the atomic basis of the periodic table, Mendeleev’s writings suggest some scepticism about the existence of atoms. He argued in favour of the existence of the ether which he proposed consisted of an element lighter than hydrogen, which he labelled element X and included it in some versions of the periodic table in the ‘zero group’. Mendeleev suggested that element X had an atomic weight one millionth that of hydrogen and was capable of free movement throughout the universe at speeds of around 2250 km/sec.

Whilst Mendeleev contributed to research on petroleum and helped establish the first Russian oil refinery, he also believed that petroleum was not organic in origin and was formed by the reaction of water with iron carbide in the upper mantle.

Suitcase maker

One of Mendeleev’s hobbies was making suitcases and evidence suggests he was very good at it.  Whilst buying materials for his next project, another customer is said to have asked after the identity of the respectable gentleman. The shopkeeper replied: ‘Don’t you know him? He is a renowned suitcase maker, Mendeleev’.