A New Alchemy
The recognizably modern chemistry that emerged in the last decades of the eighteenth century was an amalgam of many ingredients, one of which was alchemy. Building on traditions of Islamic chemistry, alchemists—Isaac Newton was one—did more than seek ways to turn base metals into gold. Their explorations accumulated much empirical knowledge and many useful technologies. An even more important ingredient contributing to modern chemistry was craft traditions, especially in glass and ceramics, mining and metallurgy, munitions, dyeing and leather working, brewing, and medical preparations. 1 Specialists in these industries developed numerous technology-intensive processes for analyzing and synthesizing substances. By the middle of the eighteenth century, chemists were members of a wellestablished, international community skilled in studying chemical reactions and in transforming materials. 2
So large was the chemist's toolkit that, in Antoine Lavoisier's classic textbook, which presented full-blown his “new chemistry, ” illustrations of the core apparatus, consisting of everything from glassware to scales to stills, filled 13 plates—a grand total of 159 figures. Lavoisier also cautioned students that learning the language and apparatus of chemistry required at least “three or four years of constant application. ” 3 Significantly, Lavoisier's compendium included one electrical device, a “gasometer, ” which enabled the combustion of confined gases—more on that later.
The advent of electrical machines and, especially, Leyden jars and batteries, gave chemists new tools for investigating substances and stimulating reactions. New alchemists is the tongue-in-cheek term I apply to the community that adopted electrical technology for chemical research. By defining “chemical research” broadly as the analysis and synthesis of substances and the study of their properties, I encompass activities that fall