THE ELEMENTS: A Visual History of Their Discovery

Book Cover for The Elements by Philip BallThe Elements: A Visual History of Their Discovery by Philip Ball

This Elements offers a largely chronological illustrated guide to how the chemical elements were discovered over the past three millennia. It provides a view not just of how we came to understand what everything is made of but also of how chemistry developed from a trial-and-error craft of making and transforming substances into a rational modern science that provides us with new materials, drugs, and much else.

While other books have described the properties of the chemical elements and often delved into their histories, none has done so in this highly visual manner. The pictorial material for this subject is very rich, including some gorgeous alchemical documents as well as portraits, colour charts, woodcuts of mining, artefacts such as John Dalton’s wooden balls, advertisements (for example, for radium ‘cures’) and postage stamps.


“Seldom has this reviewer had the pleasure to comment on such a beautifully written and lavishly illustrated book… As somebody who has struggled with the acquisition of images and permissions for books I have written, I can only marvel at finding so many well-chosen illustrations and photographs – a total of 200 colour plates in the book’s 224 pages. Ball’s work shows all the attributes of high-quality popular science writing, as it is accessible to the layperson while also succeeding in interesting readers possessing a technical knowledge of the subject matter.
Finally, as the author writes in his introduction, “These tales of discovery are like biographies, and they can make the elements seem less like a random collection of obscure nobodies and more like characters in the long continuing saga of how we have tried to comprehend and manipulate our surroundings” Eric Scerri, Ambix

Coming soon – More reviews of THE ELEMENTS: A Visual History of Their Discovery

Book Cover for The Elements by Philip Ball

The book contains separate short sections for each element or groups of related elements, which are gathered into several sections to order the sequence into several chronological eras of element discovery. Included are short ‘interludes’ (or ‘feature spreads’) presenting important intellectual milestones in how we think about elements.


University of Chicago Press hard cover ISBN 0-226-77595-X
Thames & Hudson, September 2021 hard cover ISBN 9-780-500-02453-9

Scroll to Top