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The Beautiful but Incomplete Table of the Elements Graphic Published in LIFE's "The Atom" circa 1949

LIFE magazine was an iconic American publication that was released weekly from 1883 to 1972, as an intermittent "special" until 1978, and on a monthly basis from 1978 until 2000. Though the publication had lasted for nearly 12 decades, during its 36-year Golden Age — spanning from 1936 to 1972 — it was a wide-ranging, general-interest magazine mostly known for the quality of its incredible photography.

Prior to being bought by TIME publisher Henry Luce (1898 - 1967) in 1936, the magazine was an independently published work that also covered general-interest and light entertainment stories, but was significantly heavier on illustration, jokes, and social commentary. It featured some of the most incredible talent of the day, including writers, editors, and illustrators, such Charles Dana Gibson (1867 - 1944) and Norman Rockwell (1894 - 1978).

Luce, though, envisioned LIFE as a pioneer in the arena of photojournalism. Reimagining the future of publishing, he realized that “gripping, superbly chosen news photographs, amplified by photo features and photo-essays on an international range of topics,” would set a new precedent mainstream information-consumption. So, Luce, plus editors Daniel Longwell (1899 - 1968) and John Shaw Billings (1891 - 1975), sought out the very best in the field.

In 1937, Luce also hired Edward Kramer Thompson (1907 - 1996), then a freelancer for TIME, as LIFE’s assistant picture editor. The strategy paid off; LIFE successfully changed the publishing industry’s standard for visual communication. But, the first all-photographic American magazine, which condensed all text into captions that went along with pages of photos, did gradually begin to admit more writing, while carefully choosing its writers and text editors.

Thompson became the magazine’s managing editor in 1949, and editor-in-chief from 1961 until his retirement in 1970. Scholars agree that his influence was significant during LIFE’s heyday. And it was under his management that on May 16, 1949, LIFE published a stunning series of images to accompany its issue largely dedicated to The Atom. In it, the re-imagination of the periodic table of elements as a colorful spiral is one of the most striking graphics in the release.

Today, the periodic table lists 118 elements. But, in 1949, only 104 of these were known. According to Science Blogs: “Science reporter Robert Campbell and photographer Fritz Goro spent a year trying to solve the problem of showing the intricate, invisible nature of atoms." That may be so, but the graphic of the periodic table is what arguably stole the show. Below is the originally published design for the Table of the Elements and the caption that came with it.

Table of the Elements |  LIFE Magazine | May 16, 1949
Table of the Elements | LIFE Magazine | May 16, 1949

The irregular spiral above is a systematic arrangement of the 92 natural elements, the four new elements so far created by man and eight more elements which are theoretically possible to create. It is called the periodic table of the elements. The sequence begins with hydrogen (at the center of the spiral), which is the first and simplest element. Under its name appears its chemical symbol (left), its atomic weight (right) and a larger numeral which gives the total number of electrons in its atom. It is on the basis of this number that the elements are arranged in sequence: after hydrogen, with its single electron, come helium with two, lithium with three, beryllium with four and so on around the spiral.

The colors and construction of the table express another kind of relationship among the elements: the repetition, at regular intervals, of the chemical properties of the first few. Characteristics are thus repeated periodically in the progression from the simplest to the most complex. The table is so organized that elements whose chemistry is almost identical are grouped together in blocks connected by solid arrows (all the inert gasses – helium, neon, etc.–fall in the single gray block at the left). Broken arrows relate groups of elements which are similar in most respects but differ in a few of their properties. All related elements are given different shades of the same color. The key to this similarity among elements is found in the arrangement rather than the number of the electrons in their atoms. Only the electrons in the outer shell affect an atom's chemical nature. Therefore all elements whose atoms have identical outer shells are chemically related, regardless of the total number of electrons which each of them may possess. For example, lithium, sodium and the other elements in the red segment at left all have one electron in their outer shells and are therefore similar though they differ in the total number of their electrons. Each complete circuit of the table starts with one of these elements and ends with an element in the adjacent gray segment whose atom's outer shell is complete.

This table, like all attempts to reduce the basic phenomena of nature to a simple pattern, falls somewhat short of its objective. For one thing, there are variations in the sequence of elements which do not fit readily into its graphic form. For another, it is not so much a simplification as an orderly presentation which specifies the relationship between elements but leaves much about them to be explained... Yet in expressing this relationship the table reveals the extraordinary symmetry and order which underlie the universe.

Note* The image is the property of LIFE magazine, under TIME Inc.


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