Spectrochemical analysis, which is an integral instrument in many university and industrial chemistry laboratories, rests — like so many modern-day innovations — upon the shoulders of giants.

The giant, in the case of spectrochemical analysis, is English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, who in 1666 discovered that the white light of the sun could be dispersed into a series of colours, which he called “spectrum.” Using a small aperture lens, glass prism and a screen to capture and display spectrum, Newton created the first spectroscope — one that was almost modern in form. 

Later, other scientists refined Newton’s discovery, such as German optician Joseph Fraunhofer, who used a diffraction grating to show that the spectrum of light given off by the sun had noticeable gaps at key frequencies. Further work throughout the 19th century showed that elements and compounds, when burned, gave off a unique  spectrum. Slowly, spectrochemical analysis became established as a key scientific tool for analyzing the composition of materials. 

From the 1930s through to the 1940s, the use of spectrochemical analysis became more sophisticated. Spectrometers became capable of identifying several atomic species at the same time, eliminating the need for chemical separations.  

As can be seen in this 1951 Chemistry in Canada advertisement from SCIEX Canada, spectrochemical analysis using the Hilger Project Spectrum Comparator was useful as a tool for scientific institutions in academia as it was in industries to determine the metallic ingredients of a sample. The finely honed Hilger Projection Spectrum Comparator was just one of the myriad of instruments offered by SCIEX, an international group of companies that developed technologies for life science research. Today, SCIEX is headquartered in Framingham, Mass. and has offices on every continent. In Canada, AB Sciex LP Division of MDS Inc. is located in Concord Ont. and is recognized as a leader in the development and manufacture of mass spectrometers for analytical chemistry to identify the amount and type of chemicals present in a sample. The mass spectrometers measure the mass-to-charge ratio and the abundance of gas-phase ions and are highly useful in a range of sectors, including biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, geology, the environment and clinical analysis for things like neonatal screening.