A New Light on Alchemy

By Szydlo, Zbigniew; Brzezinski, Richard | History Today, January 1997 | Go to article overview

A New Light on Alchemy


Szydlo, Zbigniew, Brzezinski, Richard, History Today


In June 1897 the French journal La Nature reported that the United States Assay office had, on April 16th, purchased the first ever gold ingot manufactured from silver. Six months later, an article in a popular newspaper related that the inventor, Dr. Stephen H. Emmens, was `producing enough gold to bring him at the Assay Office a profit of $150 a week'. Emmens, an American of British descent, bragged that he had finally mastered the alchemists' art and could produce gold commercially. He let slip that his `Argentaurum' process worked by the action of high pressure and intense cold on silver, but was eventually exposed as a fraud when he claimed that his process was endorsed by a leading physicist, Sir William Crookes. By 1901 Emmens was nowhere to be traced.

Three centuries earlier, in 1590s Prague, an unknown alchemist of Arabic origin made a flamboyant appearance in a city with a reputation as the alchemical capital of Europe. After courting merchants and bankers, he invited twenty-four of the wealthiest to a banquet, during which he promised to multiply gold. He obtained 100 gold marks from each guest, and placed the coins in a large crucible with a mixture of acids, mercury, lead, salt, eggshells and horse dung. But, as he prepared to operate the bellows of his furnace, there was a tremendous explosion which left the guests spluttering in a fog of fumes. By the time the smoke had cleared, the alchemist had vanished, along with the 2,400 gold marks.

Such stories of fraudsters form the modern stereotype of the alchemist, and alchemy is widely seen as little more than the art of changing base metals into gold. With hindsight we know the alchemists were wasting their time: it is impossible to `transmute' elements by chemical means, and nothing short of bombardment by neutrons in a nuclear reactor will produce gold from lead, and then only in microscopic amounts.

Although modern chemists are prepared to admit that the alchemists invented many of the chemical processes in use today, alchemy is still often condemned as mumbo-jumbo, and at worst, bundled in with astrology and necromancy as an occult pseudo-science. No wonder then that' alchemy was dismissed in 1831 by Thomas Thomson as the `rude and disgraceful' beginnings of chemistry.

But is this view of alchemy justified? When we hear that some of the greats of science, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Robert Boyle (1627-91 - of Boyle's law fame) had a keen interest in alchemy, perhaps it is time to think again. When we examine more closely the obscure texts of alchemy and venture behind the baffling terminology and mystical allusion, we see revealed a long and ancient line of philosophers and experimenters searching for secrets far more precious than gold.

* * *

The origins of alchemy go back at least four millennia to ancient Mesopotamia, India, China and Egypt and the first reasoned attempts to make sense of the diversity of nature. Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander the Great, brought many of these ideas together when he proposed that all worldly substances were made up of four elements: air, earth, fire and water. A fifth element, the ether or quintessence (from Latin quinta essentia, fifth essence) was the stuff of the heavens.

A refinement to this picture was made by Arab alchemists in the eighth century AD, in particular by Jabir ibn Hayyan, known in Europe as Geber. He proposed that all metals were formed of mercury and sulphur mixed in various proportions. White metals had very little sulphur, and yellow metals like gold, had more. It seemed like common sense, and was an open invitation for attempts at gold-making.

Increasingly alchemy gained a mystical side - perhaps from frustration at failed experiments. Into it came a strange concoction of Christian, Gnostic and neo-Platonic ideas. Adepts began to believe that experiments would only work when they were in a state of spiritual elevation achieved through prayer. …

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