Because chemists for so long worked in isolation, conventions were slow to emerge. Until well into the second half of the century, the formula H2O2 might mean water to one chemist but hydrogen peroxide to another. C2H4 could signify ethylene or marsh gas. There was hardly a molecule that was uniformly represented everywhere.
Scientists also used a bewildering variety of symbols and abbreviations, often self-invented. Sweden's J.J.Berzelius brought a much-needed measure of order to matters by decreeing that the elements be abbreviated on the basis of their Greek or Latin names, which is why the abbreviation for iron is Fe (from the Latin ferrum) and that for silver is Ag (from the Latin argentum ). That so many of the other abbreviations accord with their English names (N for nitrogen, O for Oxygen, H for hydrogen, and so on) reflects English's Latinate nature, not its exalted status. To indicate the number of atoms in a molecule, Berzelius employed a superscript notation, as in H2O. Later, for no special reason, the fashion became to render the number as subscript: H2O.