Alchemy flourished in China, India, the Middle East, and Europe, wherever gold was valued and the desire for more was ever present. In the West, alchemy can trace its roots to ancient Egypt where one of the earliest identifiable alchemists lived. He was Democritus and he dwelt in the Nile Delta about 200 BC. He wrote Physica et Mystica [Natural and Mystical Things], which included not only useful recipes for dyes and pigments, but also some for making gold, although his instructions were written in obscure language making them difficult to understand. This might have been done because they were really recipes for making fake gold.
A later Egyptian alchemist was Zosimos who lived around 300, and he described such chemical processes as distillation and sublimation, crediting an earlier alchemist, Maria the Jewess, as the inventor of these. She too had lived in Egypt about 100 and she had experimented with mercury and sulphur, although her best known invention was the bain-marie which is still used in cooking when gentle heating is required. Zosimos also left obscure writings on how to turn base metals into gold, and he wrote of 'the tincture' and 'the powder' which later generations of alchemists took to be the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher's Stone respectively. Another alchemist who lived about this time was Agathodiamon who wrote of a mineral that, when fused with natron (naturally occurring sodium carbonate), gave a product that was a 'fiery poison' and which dissolved in water to give a clear solution. It seems certain that he had made arsenic trioxide and that the mineral he had used was either realgar or orpiment which are arsenic ores. Of this we can be certain because when he put a piece of copper into the solution it turned a beautiful green colour, which is what would happen if copper arsenite were formed. This pigment was to turn up again 1500 years later, and to lead to massive contamination of the domestic environment and to many deaths - as we shall see.
By the time of Zosimos, alchemy was starting to decline, along with the Roman Empire, but a lot of its writings were saved by a sect of dissident Christians, the Nestorians, who fled to Persia around 400. This information eventually passed to the Arabs, in whose hands alchemy again flourished and the word alchemy comes from Arabic. Early Muslim rulers encouraged all branches of learning and as their empire expanded into Spain around 700 so it brought the new alchemy to the attention of those in Western Europe. The two great Arab alchemists were Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815), known in Europe as Geber, and Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya Ar-Razi (865-925), known in Europe as Rhazes. Their writings were translated into Latin and became widely known throughout Europe, and influenced all who followed.
More than 2000 works are attributed to Geber. He said that everything was composed of the four elements, fire, earth, water, and air, and that these combined to form mercury and sulphur, from which all metals were made, varying only in the proportions of these basic components. Geber knew that when mercury and sulphur were combined, the product was the red compound cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) yet he believed that if the perfect proportion could be found, then gold would be the result.
Rhazes wrote the influential Secret of Secrets, which contained a long list of chemicals, minerals, and apparatus, including several kinds of glassware. He was the first to distil alcohol and use it as an antiseptic, and he also recommended mercury as a strong laxative. Another product he knew about was a mercury chloride called corrosive sublimate. An ointment made from this was used to cure 'the itch', which we know as scabies and which thankfully is now rare. It is caused by a mite which burrows below the surface of the skin and produces almost unbearable itching especially in the genital region, and it is often transmitted during sexual intercourse. The poisonous nature of mercury and its ability to penetrate the skin made it an effective treatment of the disease.
Indian alchemists were also active by 700 and their ancient lore is encapsulated in a text written around 800 and called Rasaratnakara. This dealt mainly with mercury and its reactions with other compounds, again claiming that mercury was endowed with the power to make gold. It was also capable of making humans immortal, once it had been transformed into a 'nectar'. Traditional Indian medicines, and those of China, still use mercury and its compounds as ingredients.
In the early Middle Ages in Europe there were several noted alchemists, such as Avicenna (985-1037), Albert Magnus (1193-1280), Roger Bacon (1220-92), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), some of whom became better known for their theological writings. The most famous alchemist of this period was a Spaniard who also called himself Geber, hoping thereby to give his writings more credence by association with the earlier Geber. As a result his works were widely read and he was in fact the first person to report how to make nitric acid, silver nitrate, and red mercury oxide. His books were best known for the clear descriptions he gave of the apparatus he designed and how these were to be used, and this made them influential beyond the field of mere alchemy.* In effect Geber made alchemy respectable.
European alchemists slowly added to the body of chemical knowledge and one of their most notable discoveries was aqua regia, a mixture of concentrated nitric and hydrochloric acids that was capable of dissolving gold itself. This discovery fuelled the belief that gold was transmutable. When this solution was diluted with oil of rosemary the gold stayed soluble and this potion, called aurum potabile, was even prescribed as a cure-all. Unfortunately most alchemists were wedded to arcane language and it is almost impossible to understand the manuscripts they wrote, often because they used several different names to describe the same substance. Mercury, for example, was known as the doorkeeper, May-dew, mother egg, green lion, and bird of Hermes, to name but a few.
Nicholas Flamel (1330-1418) was one of the most famous French alchemists and it was widely believed that he had found both the Philosopher's
* His books were: Summa perfectionis magisterii [The Sum of Perfection], Liber fornacum [Book of Furnaces], De investigatione perfectionis [The Investigation of Perfection], and De inventione veritatis [The Invention of Truth].
Stone and the Elixir of Life because of the great age to which he lived and the wealth he accumulated, which he used to endow churches and build hospitals. There were reports that in January 1382 he had converted mercury to silver and three months later he was reported to have converted a large amount of mercury to gold. It is more than likely that his wealth, and old age, stemmed from his miserly and abstemious lifestyle. He probably became rich through money-lending and debt collecting, but there is no doubt that in his early years he was an alchemist, and used his alchemy in later life to disguise the real source of his wealth.
England too had its famous alchemists, such as George Ripley (born in the early 1400s) who came from Bridlington, Yorkshire. He studied in Italy for 20 years, where he eventually became a domestic chaplain of Pope Innocent VIII. He returned to England in 1477 and published The Compound of Alchymy; or the Twelve Gates Leading to the Discovery of the Philosopher's Stone. The 12 gates were the various chemical techniques such as distillation and sublimation. Because he was very rich it led contemporaries to believe that he too had discovered how to make gold, but on his deathbed he confessed to wasting his life on futile ventures and urged those who came across his writings to burn them, saying they were based not on actual experiment but on mere speculation.
Bernard of Treves (1406-91) began searching for the Philosopher's Stone in his early teens and was still looking when he died aged 85. He was lucky in that he was born into a wealthy family and so could afford to spend his whole life as an alchemist, although there is plenty of evidence that some of those who joined him in his search were simply conmen. One of these was a man known as Master Henry, whom he met in Vienna in 1464, and with his help Bernard performed an experiment that failed miserably. He gave Master Henry 42 gold marks, which he sealed in a vessel with mercury and olive oil, and heated them for 21 days. Surprisingly, when the vessel was opened there were only 16 gold marks to be found.
Fraudulent alchemists like Master Henry had several tricks for conning the gullible, such as using double-bottomed crucibles in which gold could be hidden, or inserting gold leaf inside pieces of charcoal that were added to the crucible, or, simplest of all, pre-dissolving some gold in mercury and then distilling this off leaving gold behind. No one doubted that transmutation was possible and in 1404 a law was passed in England in the reign of King Henry IV that forbade the making of gold or silver by alchemical methods.
This law, known as the Act of Multipliers, remained on the statute books until the 1660s when it was repealed thanks to the efforts of scientist Robert Boyle (1627-91) who was convinced that it was discouraging research that might well make the nation wealthy.
Alchemy flourished in the 1500s and 1600s and its practitioners became noted figures of their day: Georg Agricola (1494-1555), Paracelsus (14931541), John Dee (1527-1608) and his close associate and conman Edward Kelley (1555-95), Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636), Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577-1644), and Joseph Francis Borri (1616-95). The last of these came from Milan and he spent much of his life searching for the elusive Philosopher's Stone under the patronage of various dukes and monarchs, including his most protective patrons the ex-Queen Christina of Sweden and King Frederick III of Denmark, although he spent the last 20 years of his life a prisoner of the Pope in the Castle of St Angelo. Paracelsus became famous for his medical use of alchemical materials such as mercury, and we will hear more of him in later chapters. Sendivogius probably discovered oxygen, which he made by heating nitre (potassium nitrate).
Scams were often perpetrated on alchemists, and they appear to have been easily fooled. The Swiss scientist Johann Helvetius lived in The Hague, and in December 1666 he was visited by a man who said he had discovered the Philosopher's Stone. He sold a small piece to the scientist to investigate, with the promise that he would return the next morning to show him how to make more. Helvetius' wife urged her husband to try it out that evening, and indeed they used it to convert half an ounce of lead into the finest gold. A local goldsmith pronounced it genuine, and Helvetius became famous when the news got out. Sadly the mysterious visitor never returned to reveal how the Stone had been made.
Alchemical fraudsters have continued in business right up to modern times. Long after alchemy had given way to chemistry there were those who still claimed transmutation was possible. The Emperor Franz Joseph was conned out of the equivalent of $10000 in 1867 by three supposed alchemists, and as late as 1929 a German plumber, Franz Tausend, was still conning people. He persuaded a group of financiers to allow him to demonstrate his method. At the State Mint, and before an audience which also included a judge, the state attorney, and a police detective, he produced a tenth of a gram of gold from a gram of lead. All his equipment had been thoroughly tested beforehand and it appeared he had achieved a genuine transmutation. In fact the gold had been smuggled into the room inside one of his cigarettes.
The 1600s saw the gradual emergence of chemistry from alchemy and in this period we find several men we now recognize as true scientists who were in their time secret alchemists, such as Robert Boyle, John Mayow (164179), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). By the end of the 1700s, however, alchemy was no longer respectable, at least in scientific circles, although even in the late nineteenth century some alchemists were still at work, including August Strindberg (1849-1912) the great Swedish writer. He devoted a considerable amount of effort to the project and believed he had succeeded in 1894 when he sent samples of his 'gold' to the University of Berlin and published his method in a fringe journal, L'Hyperchimie. Like all before him he was deluded, and later analysis of his samples showed them to be iron compounds, which can sometimes appear a deep gold colour.
The chemistry of the alchemists was really quite superficial in that it consisted of heating mercury with sulphur and any other ingredient that the alchemist had to hand. Mercury was known to dissolve all metals except iron and the amalgams so formed were then heated with sulphur. The resulting material could take on a variety of hues, especially if arsenic oxide was also added to the vessel, so much so that they would lead the alchemist to think a different process had occurred each time. Alchemical elixirs can still be purchased on the Internet, where there are recipes for making gold, and the subject can still be studied at the Paracelsus College Australia, which is based in Adelaide and has its own website at <elevity.com/alchemy/ parcoll.hmtl>. This gives useful access to translations of many of the writings of the alchemists of the Middle Ages.
Mercury vapour is known to be highly dangerous. What is somewhat surprising is that many alchemists lived to old age, suggesting that either this toxic metal did them little harm or, more likely, that they spent more time theorizing about transmutation than attempting to carry it out. It seriously affected some of them, as we know from the experiences of those who were practising alchemists in England in the late 1600s.
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