I'm certain that ancient man knew of wind and of our need to breathe, but when did air as a distinct material become obvious? I notice that the four classical elements are water, wind, fire, and earth. As no other gasses were known until the chemists replaced the alchemists, when did air as a medium become known? Did Newton know of air?

  • air or oxygen, if oxygen this guy discovered it.
    – Nathan
    Feb 2, 2013 at 19:43
  • 2
    The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind. 8-)} Feb 3, 2013 at 19:15
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    Apr 1, 2020 at 12:41

1 Answer 1


Philo of Byzantium, wrote Pneumatica. Which included details of devices operated by air pressure. They knew about it far earlier than Newton. He seems to be an early source for knowing about the properties of air with respect to combustion, link.

But if we're talking about classical Greek elements, I thought Empedocles's four elements included air. However it is "wind" in the Babylonian idea from the Enûma Eliš (18th-16th century BCE). I'm not sure what the difference between air and wind is unfortunately, and I don't have access to papers anymore. This is what I would read if I did.

  • I also liked the second page of this: docs.google.com/…
    – Nathan
    Feb 2, 2013 at 19:52
  • Thank you. In fact, in English it is translated to 'air' but in Hebrew it is translated to 'wind'. If someone could read the original Byz then I would be interested in hearing their comments.
    – dotancohen
    Feb 3, 2013 at 6:16
  • I found the Wikipedia link to [Air (Classical Element)[en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_%28classical_element%29] from your Empedocles link. That is about as close to an answer as I expect to come, so I'm accepting this answer. Thank you!
    – dotancohen
    Feb 3, 2013 at 6:18

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