The discovery of inert gases ranks among the four great scientific events of the end of the 19th century that led to revolutionary changes in natural sciences, the other three being the discovery of X-rays by Roentgen, discovery of radioactivity, and the discovery of electron.
This prominence given by scientists to inert gases has many reasons.The history of their discovery is colourful and exciting. Helium, the mysterious solar element, was discovered on the earth and this fact alone illustrates how inventive and penetrating man’s mind became in his striving for deeper and better understanding of nature.
No less mysterious argon sowed confusion among scientists. Its chemical inertness made it impossible to be classified as a chemical element in the ordinary sense of the term since it revealed no chemical properties. There was nothing left for the researchers but to grow accustomed to the idea that there can be elements unable to enter into chemical reactions. The idea proved extremely fruitful. The discovery of inert gases contributed to development of the zero valence concept. Moreover, forming an independent zero group they added harmony to the periodic system. Almost twenty five years after their discovery the inert gases helped N. Bohr to develop his theory of the electron shells of atoms. This theory, in its turn, explained the chemical inactivity of the inert gases and their atomic structure became the basis of the concepts of ionic and covalent bonds. Thus, the discovery of inert gases contributed greatly to the development of theoretical chemistry.
In the early 60’s they surprised the scientific community once more. Scientists showed that Xenon (mainly) and krypton can form chemical compounds. Now more than 150 such compounds are known. Such late “debunking” of the myth about the complete chemical inactivity of inert gases is a paradoxical and interesting feature in their history.
Inert gases are among the rarest stable elements on the earth. Here are the data given by Ramsay: there is one part by volume of helium per 245 000 parts of atmospheric air, one of neon per 81 000 000, and one of argon per 106, one of krypton per 20 000 000 and one of xenon per 170 000 000. Since then these figures have remained almost unchanged. Ramsay said that xenon content in air is less than that of gold is sea water. This alone shows how excruciatingly difficult was the discovery of inert gases.