An Introduction to the Philatelic Table of the Elements 2.0

a 2019 Algerian postage stamp with an image of MendeleevAlgerian postage stamp for IYPT-2019

An updated version of the Philatelic Table of the Elements, originally presented at the spring 2016 American Chemical Society Meeting, was presented to mark the International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT 2019). This version of the table has been updated to include the four most recently named elements. In addition, a handful of stamp selections have been altered in order to broaden topical coverage in ways that might enhance potential uses in the classroom. Each element is represented by a single (or, in a few cases, pairs) of postage stamp(s). The table runs from hydrogen (a North Vietnamese issue stamp celebrating the successful test of the Chinese H-bomb) and ends with oganesson, (create-your-own Zazzle stamp). It provides a platform for discussion of people, places, sources and applications associated in some way with each of the 118 elements. A total of 74 stamp-issuing entities, from Aden to Zaire, are represented. One can travel from the salt flats of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (lithium) to the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands (einsteinium) meeting pioneering chemists including Moissan, Soddy and the Curies along the way. 

periodic table made with stamps representing each element Enlarge Philatetic Table of the Elements and link to index of nations and chemistry topics

The bulk of the work was carried out during a sabbatical leave in Spring 2015. As an organic chemist my chemical world view focused on carbon. I seldom ventured beyond the first three rows of Mendeleev’s table, and if I did reach further, it was only for an element which might help fabricate new carbon-carbon bonds and synthesize new organic molecules. I realized that as an experienced chemist I should really have at least a superficial knowledge of all the elemental building blocks in the construction set. Tracking down a postage stamp to represent each element would provide an impetus to learn a bit about the discovery and utilization of each of them. The final product would be of general interest, which could be of use at the secondary school and non-major college levels.

A premium was attached to identifying stamps on which element names and symbols or some other chemical notation appeared. I also attempted to include as many nations as possible while ensuring a good blend of people, places, applications and scientific fields was represented. For some elements (typically those with great economic significance such as gold and aluminum) there were many options to select from. Conversely, the frustratingly chemically similar lanthanides and actinides and the ephemeral super heavy weight chemical division Jposed a more significant challenge, one requiring deep digging and a creative license. 

The accompanying index has information about the chemical content depicted on each stamp and some suggested student research or class discussion topics. Topical groupings — nuclear weapons, energy, health and medicine, light, earth and astronomical science, ancient elements and alchemy, resource economics, famous chemists, super heavy elements and materials are also indicated.

Future work on the project will involve attempts at a book featuring a short essay for each of the stamps and an interactive version of the table to be available online where one can click on each stamp to obtain a bibliography of readings appropriate for various knowledge levels and courses.

a wall size poster of the periodic table all made of different postage stampsPhilatelic Table of the Elements 2.0 displayed at Opening Ceremony, 29th of January at the UNESCO HQ in Paris, France — photo by John O’Donoghue

Editor’s note: If you would like a high resolution PDF of the Philatelic Table of the Elements 2.0, please contact Chem 13 News,, and we will email you this file.