Would it surprise you to know that the periodic table, as we know it, isn't the first table of elements? That even the order of the elements has changed from its original structure? Like many other things in life, the periodic table was not always as stable as it is today. In fact, we once believed that all things in the universe were made from just four "elements"--Earth, Fire, Water, and Air.
Modern society may have a more advanced understanding. But to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle (who lived around 300 BCE), the world (and everything in it) was believed to spring from these four things.
These days we have an abundance of elements. If a new element is discovered, it is generally the result of physicists smashing atoms together to see what happens i.e., a new element is only likely to be discovered in a particle accelerator. However, in the time shortly after Plato and Aristotle, in the early days of science, it wasn't physicists discovering elements. In fact, this period in history was a time before the term "chemists" even existed. That's right, to understand the periodic table, we need to go all the way back to the age of alchemists, people desperately attempting to create gold!
Today we know that you can't just mix different substances together to make gold; the substance must contain gold to begin with. However, at that point in time, individuals did not know this. As such, many spent their entire lives attempting the impossible, but there efforts were not completely in vain. It was during these attempts that many new elements were discovered.
Prior to the alchemists, it was only the more common elements that were known: gold, silver, iron, copper.... You get the idea.
With the discovery of new elements, more and more people started researching and experimenting in this field (and not just to make gold, but to discover). With that, chemistry was born! Yet, it wasn't until 1789 that Antoine Lavoisier published the very first table of elements--All 33 of them. He noticed that certain elements had similar properties to others, and so he grouped them together: Elastic Fluids (gases, light and heat), Non-Metals, Metals and Earths.
In the 1820's Jöns Berzelius made new symbols for the elements, moving away from the ones originally labelled by the Greeks and later the alchemists. He also started sorting the elements according to their specific weight, but it wasn't until some 40 years later that more accurate measurements and more weighed elements allowed for an accurate table.
There are a number of people who have helped with the formation of the modern day periodic table through different research that they have done, determining specific masses and discovering new elements. John Newlands, Alexandre Béguyer de Chancourtois, and Julius Meyer are three individuals that made great contributions to the formation of the periodic table, but one man is considered to being the mastermind behind it. This is Dimitri Mendeleev.
By 1869, only 63 of the currently known elements had been discovered; however, this was enough for Mendeleev to create his Periodic Table of Elements. The elements were arranged by specific mass, just as had been done by Jöns Berzelius, but with more elements and a much more accurate measurement of the elements. Mendeleev's table was not only more accurate, but also had spots left empty for yet to be discovered elements. Mendeleev was lucky that he was able to see the fruit of his work blossom, when several elements were discovered in his empty spaces. Mendeleev was also accurate in predicting the specific weight of the elements and their properties. No wonder we still use his table to this day!
Lothar Meyer was also working on his own periodic table at the same time as Mendeleev and published an abbreviated version of it in his textbook in 1864. He, however, didn't release the complete version until 1870, after Mendeleev had published his. They were both very similar in that they sorted the elements by specific mass. If it had been published, sooner we might be accrediting Meyer over Mendeleev (such is the unfortunate nature of science publishing).
Before the tables started using the specific weights of the elements, lists were ordered according to their valency. Although valency charts are still used these days, primarily in high schools, they don't give a good depiction when used for a periodic table. Some transition metals such as copper also proved problematic at the time as copper can come in several different valencies.
As useful as the Mendeleev periodic table is, we may one day end up using a three dimensional periodic table. Several of these have been created over the years and these can be more fluid than their two dimensional counterparts: no gaps and everything merges together.
In my opinion, the current table is likely to stand the test of time though. For one, it's flat and can be laid out on a table or a wall. Secondly, people don't like change. You've only got to look at the outcry against Pluto being demoted from planetary status for an example of that.