Potassium - 19K: historical information
Until the 18th century no distinction was made between potassium and sodium. This was because early chemists did not recognise that "mineral alkali" (Na2CO3, sodium carbonate, coming from deposits in the earth) and "vegetable alkali" (K2CO3, potassium carbonate, derived from wood ashes) are distinct from each other. Eventually a distinction was made.
Well before potassium was recognized as an element, potassium carbonate was mixed with animal fat to make soap. The carbonate was made by extracting wood ash with water before concentration by boiling - hence the name "potash" for potassium salts.
Potassium was isolated in 1807 by Sir Humphry Davy, who obtained it through the electrolysis of very dry molten caustic potash (KOH, potassium hydroxide). Potassium collected at the cathode. Potassium was the first metal isolated by electrolysis. Davy isolated sodium by a similar procedure later in 1807.
Sometime prior to the autumn of 1803, the Englishman John Dalton was able to explain the results of some of his studies by assuming that matter is composed of atoms and that all samples of any given compound consist of the same combination of these atoms. Dalton also noted that in series of compounds, the ratios of the masses of the second element that combine with a given weight of the first element can be reduced to small whole numbers (the law of multiple proportions). This was further evidence for atoms. Dalton's theory of atoms was published by Thomas Thomson in the 3rd edition of his System of Chemistry in 1807 and in a paper about strontium oxalates published in the Philosophical Transactions. Dalton published these ideas himself in the following year in the New System of Chemical Philosophy. The symbol used by Dalton for potassium is shown below. [See History of Chemistry, Sir Edward Thorpe, volume 1, Watts & Co, London, 1914.]