1902 Encyclopedia > Chemistry > History of Chemistry: Alchemy

(Part 2)


During the alchemistical period a knowledge of the properties of bodies was acquired; afterwards chemistry showed the relations, connections, and limits of these properties. The first mention of chemistry (chemeia, Gk.) is found in the dictionary of Suidas, who flourished in the 11th century; he defines it as "the preparation of silver and gold," and relates that Diocletian, lest the Egyptians should become rich and capable of resisting the Roman power, caused their books on chemistry to be burnt. He further asserts that the art was known as early as the period of the Argonautic expedition, the golden fleece being a treatise written on skins (dermasi, Gk.) concerning the making of gold. The belief in the art of making gold and silver, held by the Greeks from the 5th to the 15th century, was by them communicated to the Arabs, possibly not long after the conquest of Egypt in 640; and from the 11th to the 15th century alchemy was diligently studied by the philosophers of Italy, France, Germany, and England.

That the claims of alchemy, notwithstanding repeated demonstrations of their futility, so long received the serious attention of mankind, is attributable to various causes. Not only did impostors find free scope in the credulity of an age of ignorance fort he exercise of their arts; but men of talent and culture, relying on tradition, were led honestly to support the doctrine of the transmutation of metals. The existence of the philosopher’s stone having once been accepted as an ascertained fact, it is not extraordinary that Isaacus Hollandus is able to indicate the method of its preparation form "adamic" or "virgin" earth, and its action when medicinally employed; that Roger Bacon, Raymond Lully, Basil Valentin, and John Price know the exact quantities of it to be used in transmutation; and that George Rippel, in the 15th century, has grounds for regarding its action as similar to that of a ferment. In the view of some alchemists, the ultimate principles of matter were Aristotle’s four elements, the proximate constituents were sulphur and mercury, the father and mother of the metals; gold was supposed ton have attained to the perfection of its nature by passing in succession through the forms of lead, brass, and silver; gold and silver were held to contain very pure red sulphur and white quicksilver, whereas in the other metals these materials were coarser and of a different colour. Geber, judging from an analogy instituted between the healthy human being and gold, the most perfect of the metals, regarded silver, mercury, copper, iron, lead, and tin in the light of lepers that required to be healed.

To the evidence of their imaginations the alchemists were able to add that of actual observation; the fact that many ores resembling metals were changed and decomposed by heat could not but offer support to theories formed at a time when the nature of chemical combination was not understood; and the apparent transition of many bodies into one another, as, for example, that of clouds into water, was not less wonderful to them than the transmutation of the lighter metals into gold.

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