The debt science owes to alchemy
Image credit: Science Photo Library
Known mostly as the mystical quest to create manmade gold and immortality, there was a lot more to alchemy than transmuting base metal into the ‘perfect material’.
When you think of an alchemist, what do you see? An old, haggard man, possibly a wizard, stirring a cauldron, throwing goodness knows what into a steaming concoction, his face transfixed with a maddened stare as he attempts to bring about the Philosopher’s Stone and create ‘manmade perfect’ and everlasting life?
That’s the popular image, but some of the best and brightest alchemists of the past made lasting contributions to science. How did it all start?
It is believed in the West that alchemy was born at the time of Egyptian King Hermes Trismegistus (as named by the Greeks) around 1900BC, with the first document being the famous Emerald Tablet of Hermes. Considered by European alchemists as the basis of their work, the tablet supposedly contained the secret of the prima materia (one matter that was the foundation for everything) and its transmutation. The Hermetic Corpus texts, said to be written by Hermes, are the basis of Hermeticism – a spiritual, philosophical and magical tradition. One of its principles is that when seeking ‘the Divine’ we must begin with the ‘mysteries of nature’.
Greek philosophers got curious about the Egyptian’s ways, and combined their own views on matter forming from the four elements – fire, earth, water and air – with Egyptian science, creating Khemia (Greek for Egypt).
In China, Taoist monks were working on alchemy independently, focusing on the ‘outer and inner elixir’ – the outer being plants, minerals and other external products, and the inner being exercise techniques to aid the life force of the body.
In India, they also focused on the external and internal to help prolong and purify life, and saw flame colour as significant when identifying metals.
The Arabs occupied Egypt in the 7th century AD and added ‘al’ to Khemia – al-Khemia means ‘the Black Land’. This is seen by some as the origin of the word ‘alchemy’.
The West was introduced to alchemy when the Arabs brought it to Spain in the 8th century. The remainder of Europe quickly got wind of it and, soon, everybody was trying to make the tincture to create gold and immortal life.
Europe’s alchemists, once they had advanced chemical processes and apparatus for alchemy, split into two groups by the 16th century – one focused on compounds and reactions (chemistry), and the other concentrated on the metaphysical, seeking immortality and manmade gold.
Alchemists had an unfortunate reputation of being pushed by greed and madness in their quest to make gold. Yet alchemy has played a significant role in the development of modern chemistry and medicine.
So what is the most important development to emerge from the art of alchemy? Phosphorus? European porcelain? The basis for toxicology?
According to Professor William Newman, historian of science and chemistry, it is the ability to distil, or distillation apparatus: “The earliest real distillation apparatus can be identified as something like a still, found in the works of Zosimos of Panopolis. He attributes these discoveries to Mary the Hebrew.
“And once you have good distillation apparatus, lots of things are possible.
“Mysteriously, for some reason, nobody actually tried to isolate ethyl alcohol out of wine or beer until much later. But when they did, they had to have decent stills.”
In the West, distillation of alcohol was possible by the 12th century. The Islamic world used distillation to make perfume, such as rosewater, but the Arabs did not, as far as modern researchers can tell, discover ethyl alcohol or isolation of alcohol by means of distillation.
Newman says physicians from The Schola Medica Salernitana in southern Italy (the first and most important medieval medical school of its kind) discovered distillation of alcohol around the 12th century, perhaps earlier.
He adds that distillation of ethyl alcohol is important to the history of civilisation. “It was originally used medicinally, and had lots of applications.
“You could use alcohol to dissolve organic matter like plants to their active ingredients and then use them medicinally. Then came the time of medieval medicines, which really took off during and after the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century when people were desperate for anything to alleviate the symptoms of disease.”
Distillation also opened up the opportunity to make another big discovery – taking iron sulphate and subjecting it to high temperatures inside of a still. It would then break down and release sulphur dioxide.
Newman says: “Iron sulphate is also a hydrate, so it releases water vapour too, and the combination of these vapours will produce sulphuric acid. They were able to make this around the beginning of the 14th century.” Alchemists then found you could take the same material, mix it with common table salt, distil it and end up with hydrochloric acid, or spirit of salt.
“You could do the same process with potassium nitrate and it would produce nitric acid,” Newman quips. “By the first third of the 14th century or so, they had the mineral acids, which had huge technological and economic implications because they were such effective means of purifying metals and testing them.”
Newman says there is a lot more than transmuting metal into gold – alchemists were interested in a whole range of chemical technologies. “The term alchemy was also used for chemical medicines – a big deal, especially in the 16th century and after that, for example, Paracelsus, who attempted to reform medicine along the lines he got from alchemic practices.”
Alchemy was dismissed by many as misspent energy of some of the greatest minds known to science – a quest driven by greed and hunger for fame. Yet the developments, compounds and practices alchemists stumbled upon in their search for the Philosopher’s Stone are among the greatest chemical achievements still relevant today.
Here are some of the most famous alchemists of all time and their scientific achievements.
Zosimos of Panopolis (late third century AD)
The Egyptian alchemist was born in Panopolis, south of Roman Egypt. He was responsible for one of the first definitions of alchemy as the study of ‘the composition of waters, movement, growth, embodying and disembodying, drawing the spirits from bodies and bonding the spirits within bodies’. He wrote ‘Cheirokmeta’, the oldest known collection of books on alchemy, some of which survive to this day. Known as the father of alchemy, he also believed that fallen angels taught metallurgy (the study of metal properties and their production and purification) to women they married. This idea was written up in the ‘Book of Enoch’.
Ancient Romans believed mystical sciences were evil, but Zosimos said that demons hoped for the ignorance of men by keeping them in a “haze of suffering”, so alchemy lets mankind learn how to control the world and keep the evil at bay.
Maria the Jewess (between first and third century AD)
According to Zosimos, who wrote of her and her discoveries, Maria the Hebrew, or Maria Hebraea, lived between the first and third centuries AD.
Maria the Jewess’s beliefs that all things are essentially the same and the way they are combined determines their ‘final form’ influenced later alchemical practices. She also saw metals and other objects as male or female, and thought that metals, like living things, could die. However, she believed death was only a change in form and not final, just like plants change into ash when they burn.
She was credited with a few ground-breaking discoveries, such as the ‘Bath of Maria’ (Kerotakis), which heated alchemic matter and collected vapour. It is a double-vessel airtight container with a sheet of copper upon its upper side that heats substances without scorching them. The tribikos, a kind of distilling apparatus with three arms to create substances purified by distillation, and the bain-marie (Mary’s Bath) – essentially a double boiler – are also attributed to Maria. All three are still used today for chemical experiments.
Jean Baptista Van Helmont (1580-1644)
With his work on the effect of chemicals on the human body, his discovery of carbon dioxide, and his belief that understanding the body and the world needed to begin with alchemy, Belgian scientist Van Helmont helped synonymise alchemy and chemistry. He reckoned that nothing could advance without alchemy. Van Helmont also believed in a ‘prima materia’, with no basic elements, but only one matter – the foundation for everything.
He claimed to have used a Philosopher’s Stone on quicksilver to turn it into gold, and wrote that it was the colour of ‘saffron in powder’.
Ge Hong (283-343 AD)
Ge Hong, a Chinese alchemist, believed everyone could achieve immortality.
To become immortal, he thought you needed to channel the ‘oneness’ that supposedly surrounded everything and to do this you needed a lot of inner peace. To amplify the ‘oneness’ energy, you needed to use herbal compounds made by alchemic processes. Also, his theory was that gold created by alchemy would never decay or die, and consuming the manmade gold would have the same effect on the body.
During his gold-finding experiments, he inadvertently created the basis for gunpowder by combining sulphur and saltpetre.
Isaac Newton (1643-1727)
The legendary mathematician, astronomer, theologian and physicist – who also happened to discover the laws of gravity – also dabbled in the weird world of alchemy, and believed he could crack the mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone.
In his unpublished works, Newton attempted to decipher the alchemists’ papers, which was difficult as they were all written in a unique style, with cryptic labelling and obscure recipes. He spent 30 years collating and translating everything he could, pulling out all the stops to uncover the formula for the supreme object of alchemy. Unfortunately, even the famous Englishman couldn’t do it.
It was still common belief in Paracelsus’ time that the body’s ailments were down to the four humours, yet he thought the human composition wasn’t too different from the base materials of alchemy. Like transmuting base metals into gold with alchemic processes, sick organs in the body could be made healthy with the help of chemicals.
It was a great idea, as alchemy and medicine together is what is now known as toxicology but, bizarrely, he was prescribing ‘cures’ like arsenic, mercury and lead to ailing people. On the plus side, Paracelsus was credited with discovering laudanum, or tincture of opium.
Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719)
At 19 years old, German alchemist Böttger claimed he could turn base metals into gold. This prompted a summons to the court of Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony, who ordered him to make this claim a reality, as he loved gold but was always short of money.
Böttger was imprisoned for years, attempting to create the ‘tincture’ for gold-making. In 1704, Augustus II was growing restless, so he enlisted scientist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus to supervise Böttger. Von Tschirnhaus had been trying to recreate porcelain to please the monarch, and Böttger, fearing for his head, felt that cooperating with the scientist would spare his life. He, under the watchful eye of Von Tschirnhaus, experimented with clays and eventually, in 1709, found that kaolin from Schneeberg, alabaster, decomposed volcanic material and 20 per cent quartz – all heated to at least 1,300°C – produced European porcelain.
Porcelain’s recipe and manufacture had been kept a secret by China, which had been making the material since 620 AD and shipping the expensive product to Europe from the 1300s.
Until alchemists became a part of its production, many had failed to recreate this ‘white gold’. Böttger’s discovery of the secret recipe meant the King’s financial worries were no more and European porcelain became a bestseller.
Hennig Brand (1630-1710)
German alchemist Brand, like his 17th century peers, saw human urine as more than just waste and he discovered something truly precious in pee – phosphorus.
Since it looked golden, Brand believed if he distilled urine, gold would be left behind.
He collected around 5,600 litres of urine during his experiments and he apparently preferred getting it from people who drank beer due to the distinct colouration.
It is believed that he boiled and extracted the components of the urine in different ways. Upon final distillation, the product left behind was white, smelly and glowed in the dark. It was also extremely flammable. Brand had successfully created phosphorus, which we use today for items such as safety matches, flares and synthetic fertilisers.
Taken from chymistry.org, Isaac Newton describes the method for making ‘Oil of Vitriol’ (sulphuric acid). Some parts of the manuscript are illegible.
The Oyl of Vitriol
“Oyle of Vitrioll is acid destild from vitrioll first calcined to whitenesse for feare of boyling over when it <illeg.> . The fumes are white but sattle into this reddish liquor.”
Newton has another description of the process in the same manuscript:
“Spt of Vitrioll & Oyle. Deflegm ye vitrioll &c a <illeg> yt circulatory fire till after melting it coagulate into a grayish lump wch is done in 2 howers. A glass retort half filld wth this poudered, & urged into a large receiver till black veines begin to trickle downe. Then change ye receiver but lute it not on. A pound yeilds 9 or 10 (ounces) of transparent spirit, 1 1/2 (ounce) of black oyle, & ye remaining colcothar (caput mortuum) conteins a fixed salt of [copper(venus)]. The spt & oyle differ but in their flegm: ffor a drachm of spt dropt into common water (ounce)i, & filtered makes ye spt.”
English physician John French (1616-1657) had a similar method:
“Take of Hungarian, or the best English Vitrial, as much as you please, let it be melted in an earthen vessell glazed, with a soft fire, that all the moisture may exhale, continually stirring of it, untill it be brought into a yellow powder, which must be put into a glasse Retort well luted, or an earthen Retort that will endure the fire: Fit a large Receiver to the Retort and close the joints wel together; then give it fire by degrees till the second day, then make the strongest heat you can til the Receiver which before was dark with fumes be clear again; let the Liquor that is distilled off be put into a little Retort, and the flegm be drawn off in sand, so will the oil be rectified, which is most strong and ponderous, and must be kept by it self.”