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Early Atomic Theories

Thoughts of Existence Pave the Way for Atoms

The ancient Greek philosophers played a significant role in shaping the initial thoughts about atoms and early atomic theories. Several of the ancient philosophers pondered and developed a theory of matter, with one even imagining the existence of a fundamental building block that made up not only all living and nonliving things, but the supernatural as well. Their thoughts were speculative and philosophical, rather than scientific in nature. And while they attempted to touch on the nature of matter and its composition, their real goal was to address something of profound concern to the ancient Greeks: the nature of permanency and change. Unfortunately, these “theories” of matter were rather short-lived. Although there was some revival during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, they never gained any real momentum until the seventeenth century.
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The First “Atomic Theories”

The first “atomic theories” focused on a “primary element” responsible for creating all other matter. Heraclitus said it was fire, Thales of Miletus (c.624 BC–c.546 BC) said it was water, Anaximenes (c.585 BC–c.528 BC) thought it was air, and Empedocles finally unified these declaring there to be the four elements of air, earth, fire and water. Later Aristotle adopted Empedocles’ four elements and so it remained up until about the 17th century.

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