Whilst researching a post for my other blog (http://medievalfoundry.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/the-origin-and-use-of-bellows-especially-in-medieval-europe/), I remembered that I had seen bellows in alchemical illustrations.
However in refreshing my memory I find that they feature only infrequently.
Breughel’s famous drawing of an alchemist and his family shows the use of them to encourage a small fire:
Yet I have been unable to find many examples of the use of bellows to blow a furnace in alchemical texts or illustrations definitely associated with alchemists. The ones I checked seem to assume the use of a draft furnace.
I wonder why?
Here is at least one example, but it is surely meant to show alchemists in bad light, it comes from a 1520 book:
The same with this one:
From 1494. A Narrenschiff is a ship of fools, a form of satire, and the man doing the alchemy has some rather foolish clothes on. But at least it shows some retorts of the more modern one piece type, indicating that they existed even in the late medieval period.
About the only actual picture I know of is this one, no. A283, from 1503,
And the mid-16th century Splendor Solis has one illumination showing a man using bellows to increase the fire of what looks like a dye bath, with a bearded man within it. Normally dye baths work by a sort of natural draft, or rather whatever air can get in through the hole in the side to the firewood within.
Obviously draft furnaces require less labour to use, and if you are Thomas Norton or many others, you can regulate how much air gets in by the holes in the bottom of the furnace. This is simpler than using bellows, and also more repeatable. Proper learned discussion of the importance of airflow in a furnace and how to adjust it can be found in the Summa Perfectionis of pseudo-Geber of the late 13th century. But there is no mention of bellows.
A more esoteric reason might be that draft furnaces are seen as more natural and closer to nature.
At the top right of this selection of images you can see what is probably a cherub of angel using a set of bellows on a distillation fire. But it is from 1660, so hardly representative of the period of interest, and is surely meant more as a ?????
A similar problem with this one:
From 1752 it shows a type of furnace that is more wishful thinking than really useful piece of equipment. Chymistry had it’s armchair experts as much as any other endeavour.
Related to this is Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae aeternae from 1595, which has draft furnaces but also a pair of bellows:
My own experience is that bellows aren’t needed when your draft furnace is well made and using dry wood. But if you use damp wood or the furnace isn’t setup properly, then you will need them to get it going properly.
This can be seen in the woodcut at the bottom right of this page, from 1478:
Given the setting though it is more like a medicinal distillation of plants.
I have made liberal use of Adam Maclean’s re-coloured redrawings of period illustrations. There are undoubtedly more that are simply not freely available. Yet the simple fact is that between the texts and the illustrations, it is clear that bellows do not count for anything much in alchemy. They are tools to be used when necessary, but have no deeper meaning.
Just to make sure, I checked the indexes of Jung’s Alchemical Studies and Mysterium Coniunctionis, and found no mention of bellows or anything related under air.
What then to make of Reid’s classification of “puffers”, so called because they puffed a lot of air using bellows?
Well, re-reading the relevant pages, it strikes me that he takes a leaf from Jung’s works, by looking at the similarity of it over centuries rather than in proper context. So although he mentions Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman who blew on the fire until his heart felt faint, in the copy I habe Chaucer does not mention precisely what he blew on the fire with. Given the circumstances it may well have been his own breath! Or else bellows were so ubiquitous at the time that it was not important to mention them. Either way, bellows themselves are not important, to Reid it is the obsession with blowing the fire strong which matters; I suspect by contrast the true alchemist uses draft furnaces and avoids such labour. Or else all that matters is the correct heat, not how you get it.
This suggests a rather more practical orientation, even within esoteric alchemy, than you might think, but many of the less practical texts are focused solely upon the substances you work with, not the tools to be used. It is the practical ones which go into details of furnace height and wall thickness or type of glassware to be used. But even those I have available do not mention bellows.
All this is completely different from the works and evidence regarding metallurgy. In the works of Biringuccio, Agricola and Ercker, the bellows are an intrinsic part of the process. Agricola tells how to make them, Ercker gives instructions on how to arrange things so the bellows blow onto the test in the furnace. There is no mystery about them, but they are mentioned as appropriate. Looking at it this way, the lack of mention of bellows in alchemical works surveyed suggests that fewer of them are as practical minded as they might like to make out.
Something that might have relatively affected alchemical texts and practise is the presence of a certain amount of conservatism. All too often, the best is held to have been in the past, and authors rely upon historical works, perhaps affecting their approach to technology and tools.
Come to think of it, the treatment of new technology and ideas in alchemy would be an interesting topic to look at, although it might have been done before.