Newlands, John Alexander Reina

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(b. London,England, 26 November 1837; d. London, 29 July 1898)


Newlands was one of the precursors of Mendeleev in the formulation of the concept of periodicity in the properties of the chemical elements. He was the second son of a Presbyterian minister, William Newlands, from whom he received his general education. In 1856 he entered the Royal College of Chemistry, where he studied for a year under A. W. Hofmann. He then became assistant to J. T. Way, chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society. He stayed with Way until 1864, except for a short interlude in 1860, when he served as a volunteer with Garibaladi in Italy. Newlands’ mother, Mary Sarah Reina, was of Italian descent.

In 1864 he set up practice as an analytical chemist and supplemented his income by teaching chemistry. He seems to have made a special study of sugar chemistry and in 1868 became chief chemist in a refinery belonging to James Duncan, with whom he developed a new system of cleaning sugar and introduced a number of improvements in processing. The business declined as a result of foreign competition, and in 1886 he left the refinery and again set up as an analyst, this time in partnership with his brother, B. E. R. Newlands. The brothers collaborated with C. G. W. Lock, one of the previous authors, in the revision of an established treatise on sugar growing and refining. Newlands died of influenza in 1898; he was survived by his wife, a daughter, and a son.

Newlands’ early papers on organic compounds, the first suggesting a new nomenclature, the second proposing the drawing up of tables to show the second proposing the drawing up of tables to show the relationships between compounds, were vitiated by the absence at that time of clear ideas regarding structure and valency; but they are interesting because they show the cast of his mind toward systematization. His first communication (Chemical News, 7 February 1863) on the numerical relationships existing between the atomic weights of similar elements was a summing up, with some of his own observartions, of what had been pointed out by others (of whom he mentioned only Dumas). Two main phenomena had been observed: (a) there existed “triads” (first noticed by Döbereiner), groups of three elements of similar properties, the atomic weight of one being the numerical mean of the others, and (b) it was also found that the difference between the atomic weights of analogous elements seemed often to be a multiple of eight.

Like many of his contemporaries, Newlands at first used the terms “equivalent” and “atomic weight” without distinction of meaning, and in this first paper he distinction of meaning, and in this first paper he employed the values accepted by his predecessors. In a July 1864 letter he used A. W. Williamson’s values,1 which were based on Cannizzaro’s system. The letter contains a table of the sixty one known elements in the order of their “new” atomic weights. In a second table he grouped thirty-seven elements into ten classes, most of which contained one or more triads. The incompleteness of the table was attributed to uncertainty regarding the properties of some of the more recently discovered elements and also to the possible existence of undiscovered elements. He considered silicon (atomic weight 28) and tin (atomic weight 118) to be the extremities of a triad, the middle term of which was unknown; thus his later claim to having predicted the existence of germanium (atomic weight 73) before Mendeleev is valid.

About a month later he said that if the elements were numbered in the order of their atomic weights (giving the same number to any two with the same weight) it was observed “that elements having consecutive numbers frequently either belong to the same group or occupy similar positions in other groups.” The following table2 was given in illustration:

aN 6P 13As 26Sb 40Bi 54
b0 7S 14Se 27Te 42Os 50
cF 8Cl 15Br 28I 41— —
dNa 9K 16Rb 29Cs 43TI 52
eMg 10Ca 17Sr 30Ba 44Pb 53

The difference between the number of the lowest member of a group and that immediately above it was seven: “in other words, the eighth element starting from a given one is a kind of repetition of the first, like the eighth note in an octave of music.” One or two transpositions had been made to give an acceptable grouping; the element omitted (no. 51) would have been mercury, which clearly could not be grouped with the halogens.

Newlands was groping toward an important discovery, although it excited little comment. A year later (August 1865) he again drew attention to the difference of seven (or a multiple thereof) between the ordinal numbers of elements in the same horizontal group: “This peculiar relationship I propose to provisionally term the ‘Law of Octaves.’” This time he put all sixty-two elements (he included the newly discovered indium) in his table3:

H 1F 8CI 15Co.Ni 22Br 29Pd 36I 42Pt.Ir 59
Li 2Na 9K 16Cu 23Rb 30Ag 37Cs 44TI 53
Be 3Mg 10Ca 17Zn 25Sr 31Cd 38Ba.V 45Pb 54
B 4A1 LlCr 19Y 24Ce.La 33U 40Ta 46Th 56
C 5Si 12Ti 18In 26Zr 32Sn 39w 47Hg 52
N 6P 13Mn 20As 27Di.Mo 34Sb 41Nb 48Bi 55
0 7S 14Fe 21Se 28Rh.Ru 35Te 43Au 49Os 51

But this forcing of the elements into too rigid a framework weakened his case. It seemed to preclude (a conclusion that he subsequently denied) the possibility of gaps in the sequence which, when filled, would lead to a more acceptable grouping. The resulting anomalies were seized upon by his critics, when on 1 March 1866 he read a paper to the Chemical Society presenting the same table—except that the elements in the last column now appeared in numerical order. The facetious inquiry of G. C. Foster, professor of physics at University College, London, as to whether Newlands had ever examined the elements when placed in alphabetical order, has often been quoted; but Foster also made the cogent criticism that no system of classification could be accepted which separated chromium from manganese and iron from cobalt and nickel.4

The hostile reception of his paper and the disinclination of the Society to publish it (on the grounds of its purely theoretical nature) seem to have discouraged Newlands from following up his ideas until after the publication of Mendeleev’s table in 1869. After that table appeared, Newlands continued to seek numerical relationships among atomic weights, while attempting, in a series of letters to Chemical News, to establish his priority. He set out his claims more specifically in December 1882, on hearing of the award of the Davy Medal of the Royal Society to Mendeleev and Lothar Meyer. His persistence was eventually rewarded in 1887, when the medal was awarded to him.


1. A. W. Williamson, “On the Classification of the Elements in Relation to Their Atomicities,” in Journal of the Chemical Society, 17 (1864), 211–222.

2.Chemical News (20 Aug. 1865), 83; On the Discovery of the Periodic Law, 11.

3.Chemical News (18 Aug. 1865), 83; On the Discovery of the Periodic Law, 14. A few symbols have been altered to conform with modern usage (Di = “didymium,” shown in 1885 to be a mixture of neodymium and praseodymium).

4. For a report of the meeting see Chemical News, 13 (1866), 113–114. There was no hint of both a “vertical” and a “horizontal” relationship between elements prior to the publication of Mendeleev’s table.


I. Original Works. Newlands’ writings on periodicity were republished in a small book, On the Discovery of the Periodic Law (London, 1884); those published after the appearance of Mendeleev’s table, with some additional notes, are in the appendix. Sugar: A Handbook for Planters and Refiners (London-New York, 1888), written with C. G. W. Lock and B. E. R. Newlands, Sugar Growing and Refining (London-New York, 1882); a further rev. ed. by “the late J. A. R. Newlands and B. E. R. Newlands,” with on mention of a third author, was published in 1909.

An incomplete list of Newlands’ papers is in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV (London, 1870), 600; VIII, (London, 1879), 494; X (London, 1894), 916–917; and XVII (Cambridge, 1921), 506. Those particularly mentioned in the text are “On Relations Among the Equivalents,” in Chemical News, 7 (1863), 70–72; “Relations Between Equivalents,” ibid., 10 (1864), 59–60, 94–95; his critics at the Chemical Society meeting is ibid., 13 (1866), 130; “On the Discovery of the Periodic Law,” ibid., 46 (1882), 278–279, is the most detailed of Newlands’ clams for the last, are reprinted in On the Discovery of the Periodic Law.

II. Secondary Literature. Most of the biographical details stem from the obituary by W. A. Tilden, in Nature, 58 (1898), 395–396; another obituary by W. Smith, in Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry, 17 (1898), 743.

W. A. Smeaton, “Centenary of the Law of Octaves,” in Journal of the Royal Institue of Chemistry, 88 (1964), 271–274, reproduces the more important of Newlands’ tables and gives a useful summary of the relevent work of others, particulary W. Odling.

See also J. A. Cameron, “J. A. R. Newlands (1837–1898), A Pioneer Whom the Chemists Ridiculed,” in Chemical Age, 59 (1948), 345–346; W. H. Taylor, “J. A. R. Newlands: A Pioneer in Atomic Numbers,” in Journal ofChemical Education, 26 (1949), 491–496; J. W. van Spronsen, “One Hundred Years of the ‘Law of Octaves,’ “ in Chymia, 11 (1966), 125–137.

For a detailed history of the periodic table see J. W. van Spronsen, The Periodic System of Chemical Elements (Amsterdam-London-New York, 1969). An earlier and less comprehensive work, but giving a good summary of Newlands’ work, is A. E. Garrett, The Periodic Law (London, 1909). See also H. Cassebaum and G. B. Kaufman, “The Periodic System of the Chemical Elements: the Search for Its Discoverer,” in Isis, 62 (1971), 314–317.

E. L. Scott

Newlands, John Alexander Reina

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Newlands, John Alexander Reina (1837–98) British chemist. In 1864 he announced his law of octaves, which arranged the chemical elements in a table of eight columns according to atomic weight. Mendeleyev included the law in his own periodic table five years later.

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