Mendeleyev dutifully completed his studies and eventually landed a position at the local university. There he was a competent but not terribly outstanding chemist, known more for his wild hair and beard, which he had trimmed just once a year, than for his gifts in the laboratory. However, in 1869, at the age ofthirty-five, he began to toy with a way to arrange the elements. At the time, elements were normally grouped in two ways—either by atomic weight(using Avogadro's Principle) or by common properties (whether they were metals or gases, for instance). Mendeleyev's breakthrough was to see that the two could be combined in a single table.
As is often the way in science, the principle had actually been anticipated three years previously by anamateur chemist in England named John Newlands. He suggested that when elements were arranged by weight they appeared to repeat certain properties—in a sense to harmonize—at every eighth place along the scale. Slightly unwisely, for this was an idea whose time had not quite yet come, Newlands called it the Law of Octaves and likened the arrangement to the octaves on a piano keyboard. Perhaps there was somethingin Newlands's manner of presentation, but the idea was considered fundamentally preposterous and widelymocked. At gatherings, droller members of the audience would sometimes ask him if he could get his elements to play them a little tune. Discouraged, Newlands gave up pushing the idea and soon dropped from view altogether.