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Alchemical Revelations: History of Alchemy

Alchemical Revelations: History of Alchemy

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Published by David Wm. Trenholm
A short essay on the history of alchemy as a science. This paper looks at the origins and evolution of alchemy, up until its reclassification as chemistry.

This paper was written for a 2000-level History of Science and Technology course, available at Acadia University.

Copyright (C) 2007 David Trenholm
All Rights Reserved
A short essay on the history of alchemy as a science. This paper looks at the origins and evolution of alchemy, up until its reclassification as chemistry.

This paper was written for a 2000-level History of Science and Technology course, available at Acadia University.

Copyright (C) 2007 David Trenholm
All Rights Reserved

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Published by: David Wm. Trenholm on Apr 03, 2009
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved

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01/29/2013

 
Trenholm 1
In Pursuit of Perfection: Alchemical Revelations
David TrenholmHIST 2623 X2March 23
rd
, 2007Dr. David Duke
 
Trenholm 2In recent years the alchemist, and alchemy in general, has been reduced to afictional, mythical symbol. In literature, the alchemist is often a representative of science,logic and reason—but also of things magical and mystical. It is true, then, that thealchemist was a pursuer of mythical objects, recipes and artefacts; such great items of mythology like the Philosopher’s Stone, now immortalized in the popular science-fictionseries, Harry Potter, as well as the Grand Elixir of Immortality, a magical draught that,when consumed, would grant the imbiber immortality
1
. One would guess, then, for suchmythical elements, alchemy would be a somewhat dated, if not archaic, science—and thisis true. The practice of alchemy originates as far back as 400 B.C.
2
, in China, wherealchemists of the medical persuasion were searching studiously for various curatives andmedicinal elixirs—in addition, of course, to the aforementioned Elixir of Immortality.Alchemy was not limited to China in the ancient world, however; it soon found roots inAncient Egypt, Greece, Persia and India. As time passed, the mysteries of the professionwere traded and shared, leading to many significant and insignificant technologicaldevelopments—innovations such as Chinese Black Powder and Egyptian papyrus
3
; thelatter a useful tool, the former an invention that would change the course of history.Alchemy, then, is not just a science of magic and mythology, as it has contributed largelyto the technological development of the human species. It stands acknowledged today asthe predecessor to chemistry, a widely practiced and incredibly important field of study inthe advancement of many sciences. As it often was with alchemy, chemistry is valued inmany fields of technological development and study; it would be a herculean task indeedto measure its contribution to the modern world. Alchemy’s sudden evolution into
1
Trevor H. Levere, Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to Buckyball. (Baltimore:The John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 1.
2
Levere, 2.
3
Fathi Habashi, From Alchemy to Atomic Bombs. (Quebec City: Métallurgie Extractive, 2002), 71.
 
Trenholm 3chemistry could not have been possible, then, without the devoted work of hundreds of alchemists over thousands of years, spanning back to its humble origins before therecorded birth of Christ, and indeed, well before the onset of what we now call science.Well before the term “scientist” was a common title for pursuers of scientificknowledge, alchemists from all over the world were mixing together concoctions andrecipes, creating grand and often useless elixirs, and, on the rare occasion, shocking theworld with their innovations in technology. Alchemy was a practice, or art, that manycivilisations entertained. It was an invaluable pursuit for any prospective king, ruler or leader; the mere concept of transmutation—the conversion of base metals into morevaluable ones, namely gold—was an incredibly tempting notion; certainly well worth thetime and effort that would be spent in pursuing it. It would then come as no surprise thatmany kings would regularly employ a host of alchemists in pursuit of this elusivediscovery. Ancient Babylonian kings, for example, are recorded as testing receivedshipments of gold to verify its authenticity, displaying evidence that alchemy was, atsome primitive level, being studied
4
. One of the most coveted discoveries that mostcertainly enriched the study of alchemy was fire, an element that was crucial to further experimentation.
5
Fire was incredibly important to alchemists, and many of them viewedit as a crucial step in the discovery of transmutation—John Pontanus, a 16
th
centuryalchemist, was convinced that in order to find the Philosopher’s Stone, one mustincorporate a special type of fire, or as he called it, “philosophic fire”. He urged that all“philosophers”, or alchemists, search for this philosophic fire, as it would be with it thatthe unattainable Philosopher’s Stone would finally become attainable,
4
Homer H. Dubs, “The Beginnings of Alchemy,” Isis 39 (1947), 80.
5
Henry M. Leicester, The Historical Background of Chemistry. (London: Chapman & Hall, 1956), 5.

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