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In Pursuit of Perfection: Alchemical Revelations
David Trenholm HIST 2623 X2 March 23rd, 2007 Dr. David Duke
Trenholm 2 In recent years the alchemist, and alchemy in general, has been reduced to a fictional, 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 the alchemist 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-fiction series, Harry Potter, as well as the Grand Elixir of Immortality, a magical draught that, when consumed, would grant the imbiber immortality1. One would guess, then, for such mythical elements, alchemy would be a somewhat dated, if not archaic, science—and this is true. The practice of alchemy originates as far back as 400 B.C.2, in China, where alchemists of the medical persuasion were searching studiously for various curatives and medicinal 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 in Ancient Egypt, Greece, Persia and India. As time passed, the mysteries of the profession were traded and shared, leading to many significant and insignificant technological developments—innovations such as Chinese Black Powder and Egyptian papyrus3; the latter 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 largely to the technological development of the human species. It stands acknowledged today as the predecessor to chemistry, a widely practiced and incredibly important field of study in the advancement of many sciences. As it often was with alchemy, chemistry is valued in many fields of technological development and study; it would be a herculean task indeed to measure its contribution to the modern world. Alchemy’s sudden evolution into
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 3 chemistry 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 the recorded 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 scientific knowledge, alchemists from all over the world were mixing together concoctions and recipes, creating grand and often useless elixirs, and, on the rare occasion, shocking the world with their innovations in technology. Alchemy was a practice, or art, that many civilisations entertained. It was an invaluable pursuit for any prospective king, ruler or leader; the mere concept of transmutation—the conversion of base metals into more valuable ones, namely gold—was an incredibly tempting notion; certainly well worth the time and effort that would be spent in pursuing it. It would then come as no surprise that many kings would regularly employ a host of alchemists in pursuit of this elusive discovery. Ancient Babylonian kings, for example, are recorded as testing received shipments of gold to verify its authenticity, displaying evidence that alchemy was, at some primitive level, being studied4. One of the most coveted discoveries that most certainly 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 viewed it as a crucial step in the discovery of transmutation—John Pontanus, a 16th century alchemist, was convinced that in order to find the Philosopher’s Stone, one must incorporate 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 that the unattainable Philosopher’s Stone would finally become attainable,
Homer H. Dubs, “The Beginnings of Alchemy,” Isis 39 (1947), 80. Henry M. Leicester, The Historical Background of Chemistry. (London: Chapman & Hall, 1956), 5.
Trenholm 4 Search, therefore, this fire with all strength of your mind, and you shall reach the goal you have set yourself; for it is this that brings to completion all the stages of the Work, and is the key of all the Philosophers, which they have never revealed in their books. If you think well and deep upon this above-mentioned fire, you will know it.6 In the beginning, however, Alchemy was often pursued in at least two fields, especially in Chinese alchemy—a medical, altruistic-like alchemy, and a transmutation or multiplication alchemy.7 For most Chinese alchemists, however, transmutation and multiplication was merely a means in which to further their advancement of medicine— namely the discovery of an elixir that would grant immortality8. The transmutation of metals into gold was merely secondary, as they believed that such an elixir would take the form of a liquid, drinkable gold. China was not the only home to alchemy, however, as the practice had most definitely been taken up in other parts of the ancient world. Ancient Egyptian alchemists were also at work, as evidenced by the large abundance of gold, copper and silver work that has been discovered through archaeological means—the early Egyptian alchemists practiced chemical and metallurgical alchemy, and their studies and theories on the origin and formation of many metals ties closely to astrology9. The mummification of their Egyptian dead involved a complicated formula of salts, spices and other mysterious chemicals; as a result, the entire process required the skill and knowledge of an alchemist.10 In Alexandria, one of the greatest intellectual centres of the
John Pontanus, “The Epistle on the Philosophic Fire,” The Alchemy Website, http://www.levity.com/alchemy/pontan_1.html (accessed March 21st, 2007) 7 Trevor H. Levere, Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to Buckyball. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 3. 8 Levere, 3. 9 Henry M. Leicester, The Historical Background of Chemistry. (London: Chapman & Hall, 1956), 7. 10 Fathi Habashi, From Alchemy to Atomic Bombs. (Quebec City: Métallurgie Extractive, 2002), 51.
Trenholm 5 world, and the host to one of the largest and most extensive libraries in the ancient world, was an important city in the development and sharing of alchemical knowledge. At this point, the Greek, Roman and Egyptian sciences had been consolidated; astrology, however, was also an important aspect for Alexandrian alchemy11. Many of the important elements in the science were paired with an astrological symbol—Gold, for example, was paired with the sun, and silver was paired with the moon. This type of alchemical theory borrowed heavily from astrology, and as such time and effort was spent in studying it.12 With this amount of knowledge, study and effort, then, the study of alchemy cannot be dismissed as mythical or magical—it provided results, chartable results, or its practice and exploration would not have been so popular. The world of alchemy saw definite improvements and developments since its birth in the ancient world, but its eventual transformation into chemistry began in the Western world. Key scientific discoveries in alchemy contributed to the growing complexity of the science, which may have necessitated its evolution. The chief tool of the alchemist was experimentation—the distillation, sublimation, heating, cooling and mixing of chemicals was the means in which alchemical discoveries were achieved. This process, as it was practiced throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, eventually led to the end of alchemy. Hennig Brand, a seventeenth century alchemist and physician, discovered the element phosphorus after extensive tests on a large quantity of urine.13 Robert Boyle, a notable contemporary of Hennig Brand, was able to examine and create an efficient process in which to create this glow-in-the-dark element.14 Hydrogen was
Trevor H. Levere, Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to Buckyball. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 5. 12 Levere, 6. 13 Fathi Habashi, From Alchemy to Atomic Bombs. (Quebec City: Métallurgie Extractive, 2002), 87. 14 Habashi, 88.
Trenholm 6 later identified after an English scientist, Henry Cavendish, had tested and isolated it. After Joseph Black of Edinburgh took note of a strange residual air in one of his experiments, he directed one of his assistants, Daniel Rutherford, to investigate it—this eventually led to the discovery of nitrogen.15 In 1774, Carl Scheele came upon chlorine when he introduced manganese dioxide with hydrochloric acid—a man named Humphrey Davy confirmed its existence, and named it chlorine after its unique colour.16 It was not until the eventual discovery and confirmation of the element oxygen that the practice and science of alchemy would end, as it was all too clear that the complexity of this particular science was simply too great for alchemy’s humble and relatively simple origins, not to mention the negative reputation the art was beginning to accrue. It was in the year 1777, scientific scholar Fathi Habashi claims, that the popular science of alchemy finally came to a sad end. It was with the discovery of oxygen, and specifically the act of combustion, which spelled its eventual demise—as combustion and oxygen served as an antithesis to the age-old theory of phlogiston.17 The celebrated theory of phlogiston stated that, along with the other four elements, a fifth element existed in anything deemed combustible, and that when burned, was released into the air—this element was named phlogiston, after the Greek word phlogistos, meaning inflammable.18 Oxygen and combustion effectively disproved the theory of phlogiston, and a few short years later the scientific community began to propose reforms that resulted in the birth of chemistry. In the year 1787, one such reform came out of the Académie des sciences in Paris; it detailed a plan to name every substance recognized in science according to his
Habashi, 90. Habashi, 91. 17 Habashi, 94. 18 Trevor H. Levere, Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to Buckyball. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 33.
Trenholm 7 “chemical nature and composition”, organizing it into classes of substances, further detailing which elements those substances contained.19 John Dalton introduced another reform, a change in the representation of chemical substances that would replace an archaic, alchemical nomenclature that had been in use for hundreds of years.20 A significant step occurred at the University of Jena in the duchy of Weimar—Wolfgang von Goethe elected a professor of chemistry into the Faculty of Philosophy—not the Faculty of Medicine; this diversion from tradition was a first in history, as chemistry had always been paired with medicine. Furthermore, Wilhelm Lampadius, working at the Mining Academy in Freiberg, had adjusted the course layout so that Chemistry and Metallurgy was separated. With alchemy having been split threefold—into chemistry, medicine and metallurgy—the pursuit of the science in its original form was no longer necessary. Alchemy, as the ancients and classical philosophers had known it, was no more. This Chemical Revolution, as it has been named, is a significant moment in scientific history, in that a fairly commonplace, worldwide science—the study of alchemy —had reached such a level of development that a reformation and division of the field was necessary.21 Such a division, which had occurred at about the same time of the Industrial Revolution, may very well have led to such significant technological advancements as the modern atomic theory, quantum theory and nuclear fission. While still often regarded in literature and history as the gnarled, dilapidated wise-man in search of the unattainable, the alchemist and alchemy in general is a very real science, perhaps one of the first, that has made significant, long-lasting impacts throughout history. The development of Chinese Black Powder—gunpowder—is
Fathi Habashi, From Alchemy to Atomic Bombs. (Quebec City: Métallurgie Extractive, 2002), 94. Habashi, 95. 21 Habashi 95.
Trenholm 8 evidence enough that alchemical revelations have changed the very course of history. The advent of cannons and firearms into world militaries has drastically changed the political make-up and stability of the globe, and its affects are still felt today through modern implements of war. It was not until a score of recent scientific discoveries that a division of alchemy was necessary. The medicinal value of alchemy was gifted unto the field of medicine, giving birth to a new field of study, metallurgy, leaving chemistry to develop alone. This division is significant, as not only does it spell the end of alchemy as a scientific pursuit, it also revolutionized the way followers of chemistry study and experiment with their elements and compounds. The mythical aspect of alchemy remains, though, with the legends and myths that had accompanied it through history—the everpresent goal of acquiring the famed Philosopher’s Stone, or, to the Chinese, the Grand Elixir of Life. Unfortunately, immortality is something modern doctors and chemists cannot achieve, but in the realm of transmutation, science and myth have collided. In 1980, scientists working at Berkeley, at the University of California, managed to achieve something ancient alchemists had devoted their lives to: the successful transmutation of one element into another, specifically gold. Taking a small sample of bismuth—an element not dissimilar to lead—the scientists used a particle accelerator to transform the sample into gold. While the cost of such an experiment ranged in the thousands, and the transformed gold was valued at one-billionth of a cent, the accomplishment itself is priceless. Setting a goal to achieve what was considered the unattainable, humanity had toiled over millennia to discovery the secrets of multiplication and transmutation of matter—and before the end of the second millennia, they had reached their goal; a scientific landmark crediting the work and accomplishments of the thousands of
Trenholm 9 alchemists in history. Unfortunately, the transmutation of bismuth to gold industry is not as successful as most would hope it would be, but nonetheless, its significance to alchemy’s long and dignified history remains unblemished.
David Wm. Trenholm
Dubs, Homer H., “The Beginnings of Alchemy.” Isis 38, 1/2. (1947): 62-86. Habashi, Fathi. From Alchemy to Atomic Bombs. Quebec City: Métallurgie Extractive Québec, 2002. Leicester, Henry M., The Historical Background of Chemistry. London: Chapman & Hall, 1956. Levere, Trevor H., Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001. Newman, William, “Technology and Alchemical Debate in the Late Middle Ages.” Isis 80, 3. (1989): 423-445 Pontanus, John, “The Epistle on the Philosophic Fire,” The Alchemy Website available from http://www.levity.com/alchemy/pontan_1.html; Internet; accessed 30 January 2007.