Alchemy’s Influence on Early Modern Chemistry

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The Symbol Used to Represent the Philosopher’s Stone

Alchemy is often thought of, thanks to mainstream media, as solely revolving around the philosophers’ stone, whether transforming iron to gold or granting immortality to the welder.  In actuality, alchemy is much more, and represents a fundamental shift in the approach and exploration of philosophical theories.  The transition of alchemy to chemistry during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from the shifting lens of a pseudoscience to the realm of a credible field of scientific research, is a complex, weaving topic still worthy of analysis.  While chemistry is a reputable discipline, in which one studies the complexities, composition and structure of matter, it does owe its existence to what is perceived as the pseudoscience known as alchemy[i].  Alchemy, the pursuit of matter’s transmutation[ii], was viciously defended and explored by alchemists based on Aristotelian and Thomistic theory, that matter has two stages, a beginning and an end stage[iii].  Under certain circumstances derived from Aristotelian theory, matter can be forced to transfer between these two stages, which was the pursuit of many alchemists[iv].

Commonly referred to as chymistry in the literature, when referring to the early seventeenth and eighteenth century, alchemy and chemistry were at one point seen as an interwoven discipline[v].  This union of disciplines began to unravel though during the early modern period.  Even though alchemy was pursued for over a millennium by various philosophers, tradesmen and states, various institutions began to view it unfavorably[vi].  From the French ministry who viewed it as both a political and an economic threat that could unravel society, and English academics that began to distance themselves from alchemy’s less favorable past, alchemy began to be classified as just a medieval pursuit, unworthy of academic discussion[vii].  But it is the contributions of alchemists through their analytical techniques that combined philosophical theories with experimental techniques, which led to the development and prevalence of chemistry.  These techniques and the work performed by later alchemists laid the groundwork that shaped chemistry, through experimental design and methodology, combining theory with factual support that cast aside old unsupported theories and began the modernization of chemistry.

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Various Tools Used in 17th Century Alchemy

The underlying theory to chemistry and alchemy alike, stems from several philosophers, starting with Empedocles introducing the theory of the four core elements; earth, air, fire and water, in 450 BC[viii].  Democritus in 420 BC laid the foundation for the theory of matter, by stating that all matter is composed of indestructible, infinitely small particles that form the objects we perceive[ix].  Aristotle in fourth century BC combined the ideas of the two philosophers that later became known as Aristotelian theory, that dominated European chymistry until the seventeenth century[x].  Alchemy began as a search for replicating nature through the transmutation of matter, in particular of metals, into a pure and final form[xi].  While many pursuits into alchemy were to better understand nature there was just as many that had less than noble intents.  Due to the methods many used to conduct alchemy, it became infamously associated with less reputable men throughout Europe.

Many early alchemists that claimed success of the transmutation of a metal were perceived as merely con men.  From the unrepeatable experimentation results of shadowy philosophers and tradesmen, to justifiable fears of the havoc on global economies, politicians and academics were beginning to put a halt to any research associated to alchemy.  The Paris Academie Royale des Sciences in 1666, prohibited all research into the Philosophers’ stone, followed by any work into transmutation of metals in 1686[xii].  This ban on alchemy related studies was founded on several concerns:  from the social upheaval that could result from limitless precious metals flooding markets, to promoting a purely scientific image of chemistry that the public could trust, and lastly with distancing the academic institutions from their alchemy related past[xiii].  This was mirrored by the French ministry’s fear of alchemy as to the effects transmutation could have on the political establishment and economic fallout that an influx of precious metals, mainly gold, could have if transmutation had indeed ever been successfully accomplished[xiv].  Even with the prohibition of alchemy in place, many academics took to the privatization of alchemy to continue their work, hidden from public scrutiny[xv].

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David Teniers, An Alchemist’s Workshop (1650s)

Etienee-Francois Geoffroy’s memoir regarding alchemy was seen to champion the anti-alchemy cause, in which he claims “the philosophers’ stone opens a very large field for deception in chemistry[xvi].”  The negative perception of alchemy during this time was only fueled further by Geoffroy’s memoir, even though he intended the opposite.  His work was meant to denounce the cheats, counterfeits, and con men, not force philosophers into the shadows.  Since chemistry’s origins were buried deep in alchemy, Geoffroy wanted to preserve that legacy, and draw from the experiments performed by early alchemists rather then just dismiss them out of convenience[xvii].  He worried about the rigidness of the French academics, since they even rejected the works of English and German chemists[xviii].  So while he denounced the fraudulent work of many fraudulent alchemists, those that did perform science had to be protected, and their experiments needed to be evaluated on a equal footing with other scientific endeavors.  Other philosophers and chemists who were well respected at the Academie or other academic institutions, also worked on their own alchemist experiments in private.

Even during this purging of alchemy from academic circles, many great philosophers still took it upon themselves to continue their work into alchemy, such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, John Locke, Paul of Taranto, and Joan Baptista Van Helmont.  While alchemy may have been perceived to be a worthless endeavor, philosophers like these continued their work, seeing the value that alchemy could still play in transforming chemistry.  In the Geber corpus, composed by several European authors in the thirteenth century, a novel technique was applied to the experiments being conducted that held a lasting influence on the theory of early modern chemistry[xix].  Even with the commonly used techniques, incorrect theories and explanations cited throughout the Geber corpus, the idea to apply artisan techniques as a test for determining the components of matter was unheard of[xx].  The idea to meld philosophical theories about matter with written techniques and to verify the composition of matter and its properties is what shaped early alchemy, and later chemistry.  Modern chemistry is based heavily on this approach, of having a testable hypothesis and a documented method to confirm or discredit that hypothesis, and this approach to science was revolutionary, shaping eighteenth century chemistry and beyond.

Another example to support this novel approach to science, would have occurred in the fourteenth century, in the works of Paul of Taranto.  His work challenged the commonly held belief of Thomas Aquinas and his Thomistic theory, that matter had no intermediate stages between the origin and the final formed substance[xxi].   Paul’s hypothesis that matter was particles that could be separated and recombined was supported by experimental work, that was unusual and rare at the time[xxii].  This linking of philosophical theory and experimentation was as the Geber corpus, one of the lasting contributions to chemistry that lay in alchemy’s origins.  The works of the Geber corpus, and Paul of Taranto, laid the groundwork for others in the eighteenth century to build upon, influencing philosophers such as Robert Boyle, with early alchemy resurfacing throughout others’ work[xxiii].

Flemish chymist Joan Baptista Van Helmont’s experiments were another step in the modernization and transformation of alchemy from private experimentation to mainstream practice in the form of chemistry[xxiv].  One of Helmont’s experiments involved the making of glass out of sand and salt of tartar, then reversing the experiment.  Where his work was novel, was in the details of the experiment[xxv].  By measuring the weight of the original ingredients and the weight of the products, he noted that they had the same weight.  This simple revelation was ground-breaking, providing recognition to the principle of mass balance[xxvi].  This was important as it provided an insight into physics that Aristotelian physics did not consider.  His work in preserving mass through chemical changes later served Helmont to counter argue the held traditional theory of the four elements[xxvii].  It was his work into transmutation and alchemy that provided the combination of philosophy and laboratory experimentation to lead to these conclusions, lending further weight to the contributions that early alchemy played in shaping early modern chemistry.

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Alchemy’s Various Historical Ties

It is from this early work in alchemy that chemistry was shaped.  Driven by seeking the knowledge of matter manipulation, alchemists played a crucial role in early modern chemistry.  It was through their experiments that many basic principles of chemistry were founded upon.  Chemists understanding of the states of matter and mass stem from this early work, as does the method of experimentation we employ today.  Philosophy entwined with experimental design stemmed from chymists’ work, even when it was driven from academic institutions.  Many reputable philosophers believed in the value of continuing research into alchemy, and it is from their conclusions that much more about molecular nature is known.  It is important to view alchemy not as its own distinct category of science, but more a fluid discipline, playing a key role in chemistry, medicine and physics.  Alchemy’s presence throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century had more influence on modern chemistry then many give credit to.  There are still more disciplines that alchemy influenced, leaving more avenues for discussion and debate as to potentially other disregarded fields of pseudoscience that really did have a lasting impact on early modern sciences.


[i] Christine Lehman, Alchemy Revisited by the Mid-Eighteenth, (Nuncius 28, 2013), pg 165
[ii] Lehman, Alchemy Revisited, pg 165
[iii] William R Newman, What have we Learned from Recent Historiography, (Isis 102, 2011), pg 316
[iv] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 314
[v] William R Newman and Lawrence M Principe, Alchemy Vs. Chemistry (Early Science 3, 1998): 32
[vi] Lawrence M Principe, The End of Alchemy, (Osiris 29, 2014), pg 96
[vii] Principe, End of Alchemy, pg 100
[viii] Anthony Carpi, Early Ideas about Matter, (Visionlearning, 2003)
[ix] Carpi, Early Ideas
[x] Carpi, Early Ideas
[xi] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 314
[xii] Principe, End of Alchemy, pg 100
[xiii] Principe, End of Alchemy, pg 100
[xiv] Principe, End of Alchemy, pg 100
[xv] Matthew D Eddy, Seymour H Mauskopf, and William R Newman, Introduction to Chemical Knowledge, (Osiris 29, 2014), pg 9
[xvi]Bernard Joly, Etienne-Francois Geoffroy, (Osiris 29, 2014), pg 117
[xvii] Joly, Etienne Francois, pg 118
[xviii] Joly, Etienne Francois, pg 118
[xix] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 316
[xx] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 316
[xxi] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 316-317
[xxii] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 316-317
[xxiii] Eddy, Mauskopf and Newman, Intro Chemical, pg 9
[xxiv] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 318
[xxv] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 318
[xxvi] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 318
[xxvii] Newman, What have we Learned, pg 318

Bibliography:

Carpi, Anthony.  “Early Ideas about Matter.” Visionlearning CHE 1, no. 1 (2003).  Accessed December 5, 2016.

Eddy, Matthew D.  Mauskopf, Seymour H.  Newman, William R.  “An Introduction to Chemical Knowledge in the Early Modern World.” Osiris 29, no. 1 (2014): 1-15. Accessed December 5, 2016.

Joly, Bernard.  “Etienne-Francois Geoffroy (1672-1731), a Chemist on the Frontiers.” Osiris 29, no. 1 (2014): 117-131. Accessed December 5, 2016.

Lehman, Christine.  “Alchemy Revisited by the Mid-Eighteenth Century Chemists in France: An Unpublished Manuscript by Pierre-Joseph Macquer.”  Nuncius 28 (2013): 165-216. Accessed December 5, 2016.  doi: 10.1163/18253911-02801010.

Newman, William R.  “What have we Learned from the Recent Historiography of Alchemy?”  Isis 102, no. 2 (2011): 313-321. Accessed December 5, 2016.

Newman, William R. Principe, Lawrence M. “Alchemy Vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake.”  Early Science and Medicine 3, no. 1 (1998): 32-65. Accessed December 5, 2016.  doi:10.1163/157338298×00022.

Principe, Lawrence M.  “The End of Alchemy?  The Repudiation and Persistence of Chrysopoeia at the Academie Royale des Sciences in the Eighteenth Century.”  Osiris 29, no. 1 (2014): 96-116.  Accessed December 5, 2016.


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