Retrying 17th century alchemy

 Gallery Albums Garage-Alchemy 1Shotd032  Thumbs 978-0-226-57702-9-Frontcover
Indiana University science historian William Newman built a 17th century laboratory to recreate the work of alchemists. According to Newman, these early makers had a method to their madness, resulting in a "A solid body of repeated and repeatable observations of laboratory results." Discover sent a photographer to Newman's lab for a feature in the new issue. From a teaser on Discover's blog:
Here we have Professor Newman holding a beaker of concentrated nitric acid (aqua fortis) dissolving copper into a green solution. At his left foot is a large glass bottle of nitrogen dioxide in the process of combining with water vapor to form more nitric acid, according to the recipe supplied by Isaac Newton.
Newman is the co-author with Lawrence M. Principe of a book titled Alchemy Tried In The Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. It sounds fascinating, as do Newman's other books on alchemy! From the Alchemy Tried In The Fire book description:
Using, as their guide, the previously misunderstood interactions between Robert Boyle, widely known as "the father of chemistry," and George Starkey, an alchemist and the most prominent American scientific writer before Benjamin Franklin as their guide, Newman and Principe reveal the hitherto hidden laboratory operations of a famous alchemist and argue that many of the principles and practices characteristic of modern chemistry derive from alchemy. By analyzing Starkey's extraordinary laboratory notebooks, the authors show how this American "chymist" translated the wildly figurative writings of traditional alchemy into quantitative, carefully reasoned laboratory practice–and then encoded his own work in allegorical, secretive treatises under the name of Eirenaeus Philalethes.
"Garage Alchemy Is Not for the Weak of Stomach" (Discover)

Alchemy Tried In The Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Amazon)


  1. A solid body of repeated and repeatable observations of laboratory results

    Jan. 22: Burning cow dung found not to create gold.
    Jan. 24: Burning human dung found not to create gold.
    Jan. 27: Burning human and cow dung together found to create a great stinky fire, but not to create gold.

  2. Well sure. I mean, a lot of people laugh about how foolish Alchemists were, in their quest to turn lead to gold (which they actually succeeded at, by accident, in very small quantities, and they never knew they did it. Those lead amulets many wore had radioactive cores, and you can find miniscule amounts of gold at the centers). But anyways, if you look at science history a little, alchemists may have done almost nothing of modern value discovery wise, but they basically invented the scientific method we still use today.

    And, some of the alchemic discoveries WERE pretty cool. I saw a tree of life grow once. You don’t actually get neat stuff like that in a modern chemistry lab all that often. It’s all TLC spots and IR peaks these days. Nothing so macroscopic and visible is common anymore.

    1. O for sure, especially those chymists like Newton who managed to do useful work when they weren’t trying to control Demons or create gold from their farts. Newman is a leading scholar in his field and this book has been influential since its publication . . . in 2002.

    2. Nothing of value? I might be wrong, but I’d always heard that it was some alchemist, trying to find gold in a batch of wine, who discovered brandy (or maybe it was beer and Scotch).

      Was distillation originally an alchemical process? If so modern boozers and most oil companies owe a debt to the alchemists of old.

  3. I saw alchemy & professor… and just naturally think of my professor L. Principe. And bingo, second paragraph down, there is his name!

    Taking his class make me appreciate that alchemy is not just woodoo!

  4. W. B. Jensen at the University of Cincinnati has a mockup of an old Chemists lab, though I’m not sure of what year it is modeled.

    I can’t seem to findm uch about it online, however.

  5. Laugh if you wish. Get it out of the system. When they create a Phlogiston Bomb they’ll be the ones laughing.

    1. Bingo. Old-timey weird science is retro and cool, its insights suddenly ripe for re-discovery. Current weird science is apparently just weird.

  6. Err, the difference is that alchemy, while very often wrong (or perhaps BECAUSE it was very often wrong) was science, while homeopathy is, most of the time, some jerk on a soapbox trying to make money off of people’s ignorance. There’s a very, very tiny bit that starts to approach science. Most is just garbage.

    1. I love the “Err…,” kattw; it’s such great shorthand for “This should be totally obvious to anyone with half a brain.” Actually, alchemy wasn’t considered “science” in the 17th century any more than homeopathy is now, and trust me, plenty of alchemists were just scheming mountebanks, so the parallel is more apt than you think. Read Alec Ryrie’s Sorcerer’s Tale for a fantastic case study of alchemical charlatanism. Alchemy was known as “Hermeticism” and its products “natural magic” in the 17th century. “Science” as we understand the word didn’t come on the scene till the 19th century. The main point of my comparison between homeopathy and alchemy was only that contemporary and historical evaluations of whether something counts as “science” often differ dramatically. Another example–phrenology and mesmerism were widely considered to be totally legitimate social sciences in the mid-19th century (cf. Taylor Stoehr’s Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists).

      1. To be sure, many schemers and snakes, but some were undoubtedly “true believers” themselves.
        No, to be sure, it is not science. It is at most “proto-science”. Perhaps more accurately, proto-chemistry. Always applied to matter in “the lab” (or kitchen?), never just done as figures upon paper.
        Alchemy is to be studied as a chapter in the history of ideas. Or chapters, depending upon how much attention one pays to similar traditions in other cultures.
        The Chinese alchemists sought immortality by compounding potions: the western alchemists sought gold from lead.
        Practitioners of both “schools” (if I may be permitted to use a term which does not really fit so loose a collection of individuals) sought to adumbrate internally consistent schema by which to undertake actual operations upon substance or matter.
        Compare and contrast how various cultures have dealt with the preparing and cooking of food, which may be said to be another source or pillar in the foundation of modern chemistry.
        In fact, the Chinese alchemists show signs of being cook, alchemist and doctor, all at the same time, considering their focus upon compounding the “elixir of immortality”.
        My guess is that the Western alchemists were similar, mutatis mutandi.
        Both spent their nights working over hot stoves, seeking to gain by their activities material rewards.

      2. Sure and in the early 21st century, some silly people still thought that all matter was made up out of tiny strings.

  7. It was no one else but Alchemists who developed scientific method.Contemporary science folks who speak of them as foolish often don’t seem to realize how absurdly simplistic today’s cutting edge will look in 400 years.

  8. Well alright for laughs – so long as we do not return to the vile days of human alchemy:

    I mean the practice of such, not those days spent listening “in ecstasy” to this fine song.

  9. And what about Chinese alchemy?
    Ancient Chinese potions and such…many T’ang Emperors and nobles met their deaths seeking immortality from the imbibing the draughts prepared by their Taoist court alchemists!

  10. We make fun of them for thinking they could “make gold” but the idea that the elements are linked to each other was such an insight, one they worked with. They just didn’t know how the elements are related and came up with some stuff that’s way off base and odd.

    There is quite a lot that can be attributed to alchemy, even if only the refining and expanding lab techniques they developed to try and “get” gold. But there where a number of discoveries that occurred that came out of the processes of serious alchemists.

    There’s a rich history there, much more than “hah hah. they thought they could make gold. fools.” Many of them where most definitely not foolish men.

  11. It took a long time for scientists to find that you couldn’t make gold from lead. And even longer to find that you could! Read about it here:

    (I know, actually mercury.)

    The modern discipline of chemical engineering was founded on the unit operations concept, that any chemical process can be analyzed as a series of unit operations which each has common properties regardless of what you are making.

    The alchemists also dealt with operations. Most of them had equivalents in modern chemical engineering unit operations, though the alchemists sometimes defined them differently.

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