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Introduction

There have been a lot of books and articles discussing the scientific revolution that took place in the 17th century. However, even after 9 years reading and research, I’m still uncertain about the precise place of alchemy in the scientific revolution, meaning what part alchemical ideas, knowledge, experience and technology played in it.
Which is silly, but there you go. Part of my problem seems to be that the closest thing to such a discussion that is easily available is in the book “Alchemy tried in the fire” by Principe and Newman, which is about George Starkey and his alchemy in the 17th century, and how (quoted from the back cover of said book) “… that many of the principles and practises characteristic of modern chemistry were already present in alchemy.”

The problem for my understanding being that the book is focused on Starkey’s work and ideas of other alchemists near in time to him, and that it is written in an academic style with a great deal of supporting detail. Moreover, the main link to medieval alchemy being the works of pseudo-Geber, (which Newman identifies as being Paul of Taranto) and specifically the interest in testing and use of the balance, which he traces back to Arabic sources, but, there is a much wider world of alchemy out there which Newman doesn’t bring in as relevant, whereas I think a lot of it is. Whilst it is good practise to be specific and narrow about exactly what you are are saying and the evidence you use to support it, Newman has this tendency concentrate only on the specific few sources that he knows in detail, and appear amazingly confident about his sometimes broad statements, which just rubs me up the wrong way even if he is correct.

(More information about the place of alchemy in the scientific revolution is undoubtedly available in academic papers, but they are harder to get hold of and are rather a jungle, so I just don’t have them)

It turns out that I considered this topic 3 years ago, when this blog was young:

https://distillatio.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/so-what-has-alchemy-contributed-to-science/

Re-reading it, I find that it is rather short and lacking in detail. I still stand by the conclusion at the end:

“So modern chemistry and science in general owes a great deal to alchemy, but it isn’t something that can be pinned down to one specific book, year or person, it was more of a dialogue and foundation digging. Like a child at nursery school – they won’t learn much that is actually correct, and they’ll play with toys, models, things that aren’t of use in the adult world. But they need that development stage in order to go onto bigger and better things.”

However I think this topic does deserve wider and deeper exploration. In fact it deserves a book of it’s own. I shall add it to the list of things I’d like to write, but in the meantime, here is a long blog post.

Equipment and practise

I shall start by looking at the equipment used by chymists in the 17th century. Doing so should make it clear how important theories and ideas are, because when you consider only the material stuff some things become obvious. One is that alchemy overlaps a lot with other subjects. Distillation wasn’t invented by alchemists, they merely improved on it. Same with furnaces, they date back to the invention of pottery and the bronze age. Then there’s the matter of glass and of pottery, both of which were not invented by alchemists, not to forget cupels used for purifying gold or silver.

So obviously alchemists were great thieves of techniques and equipment from others.

What they did was take all these bits of equipment used for various activities, and improve them in specific ways for specific purposes. Furnaces for making glass, or pottery, or melting metal existed, in all sorts of sizes and shapes. What alchemists did was regularise some of the shapes, and discuss at length the importance of various influences upon furnace performance, especially in later medieval Europe.

{{Now, why Europe you are saying? Well, we have more evidence available for Europe. We can also see that something specifically different happened, the rise of science. Early forms of science also existed in the middle east, but were prevented from developing by a confluence of factors, from plagues to horrendous invasions by barbarians and the stifling effects of fundamentalist approaches to religion, which were basically that if it isn’t in the holy book, then it isn’t worth studying. This was a problem in the west too, but not quite as much as in the east, and thus, sufficient development took place. See the section on theory for more information about this topic }}

In the matter of bronze casting, and iron casting, there is a clear tendency for furnaces to get bigger, more effective and efficient throughout the last 4 centuries of the medieval period. This would have happened without alchemists, but it seems clear to me that the kind of small furnaces required for assaying and mineralogy would have been more crude and less developed without some input from alchemists. Having said that I think that a lot of knowledge went the other way too, and alchemists were probably copying the practical minded artisans a lot as well. There is also the distinct possibility that alchemists talking and travelling and communicating meant that newer designs and ideas spread across Europe and might have been added to the techniques used by artisans. But finding evidence for it all is difficult.

Glass was used in alchemy in the first century or two after it was invented, but stayed quite rare until the scientific revolution, simply down to a lack of knowledge of how to make good glass and the expense of buying it. I think that even without alchemists a good glass industry would have grown up, the important bit being that because alchemists were doing a lot of distillation a lot of attention was being paid to the right shape and using good quality glass, thus stimulating some areas of knowledge and practise.

Moreover, the actual practise of distillation fitted into specific useful approaches to understanding and manipulating the physical world, and as such good glassware was really important. Without it already existing, people attempting to understand stuff in the 17th century would have found it extremely hard to get started. And it just so happened that in distillation they had a ready made and fairly easy method of approaching what things were made of and how they were used.

Remember too that Heironymous Braunschweig, the German maker of distilled medicines who wrote a few books on it, referred to the alchemists for their knowledge on the topic and of how to make lute to hold the vessels together.

Some work has been done that is relevant to this, and can be found by looking in “Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry” edited by Holmes and Levere. There are three articles, by Anderson, Newman and Principe that are relevant.

Newman’s says, “Any attempt to dissociate alchemy from this tradition [meaning that of assaying and mineral technology] would obviously prove fruitless, for even the earliest works in this genre, such as the Nutzlich Bergbuchleyn of Ruelein von Kalbe (1505) openly acknowledge their debt to alchemical sources.” (page 49 of the hardback edition) So from the end of the medieval period, alchemy was associated with a physical activity that required manipulation of stuff and was to prove useful in the foundation of science.

Chemicals

Unfortunately it seems probably that even the divine water, calcium sulphide, was not invented by alchemists, although they certainly used it a lot. There is also the matter of salts such as alum, various carbonates, nitre etc etc. And sulphur, and metal acetates and mercury. All were not invented by alchemists, rather used by them.

There are several claimants to the position of first alchemically created substance or compound, and I’m not sure about the veracity of such claims. There is the production of metallic arsenic, which legend attributes to Albertus Magnus. This is certainly false, but it might have been created by some of the Arabic alchemists, or perhaps some medieval European ones.

The situation is made more complicated by the fact that a lot of recipes from the likes of ar-Rhazi would make a wide variety of complex compounds, but that fact is not properly appreciated. For instance mercuric chloride is probably made in one of the recipes in his Secret of Secrets, but it takes until the Spanish based alchemists of the 11 century AD or so before it is specifically identified and utilised, and from there it passed into Europe.

Another example is nitric acid, or indeed all other acids. I have established to my own satisfaction that some recipes for making them in Arabic texts actually make alkalis, but other would make acids. They are the best candidate in my opinion for substances created and used by alchemists for the first time in the history of the world. And the dates would be around 900 to 1000 years ago, but again, it took a while for them to be recognised for their usefulness.

More compounds were created in western Europe. For instance, metallic acetates. Sure, they were created and even distilled in Arabic alchemy, but as a mixture of other substances, whereas in Europe they seemed to be recognised as specifically useful materials, by the 14/15th centuries.

Further research would be required of course to pin down dates better. Suffice to say, most of the information online about such dates is false, based on flawed research from 50 or 100 years ago.

However, as Newman argues, alchemists seem to have been involved in obsessing about the purity of compounds such as salts, and given the many mentions of way of purifying salts and metals and the like in the recipes, this seems to have been adopted by or in dialogue with other folk who used salts and metals. For instance, the purification of saltpetre by artisans uses methods similar if not identical to those used by alchemists for centuries beforehand to purify the saltpetre and other stuff that they used. Again, I can see a role here for alchemists spreading techniques and knowledge about how to do this sort of stuff.

Of course it always helps to remember that ‘alchemist’ was not a career choice, more a role that individuals undertook at different times and places in their normal career, and as such crossover of knowledge was probably more likely than you would think. Sure, they wouldn’t tell everyone the secret of how to make the stone, but surely using their knowledge to get purer saltpetre or a better furnace for casting wouldn’t have been a problem.

Theory and ideas

Now, onto the complex stuff.

The interesting question is, how much did the available material technology and ideas and concepts affect the ideas about their activities that the early chymists had? The answer is surely a lot. And it took quite a few tries for them to get a handle on what the methods and equipment was telling them about how the world worked. They had to go through various ideas until they found some that both explained the current experimental results, and pointed the way to others. From a modern point of view, most of their ideas were wrong, but it is the process and what is done with the ideas that counts.

To quote from Lindberg, “The beginnings of western Science”, page 364 of the paperback:

“However what he (Francis Bacon) and the Baconian tradition of the seventeenth century gave us was not a new method of experiment, but a new rhetoric of experiment, coupled with full exploitation of the possibilities of experiment in programs of scientific investigation.”

And a little further on, “The underlying source of revolutionary novelty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he argued, was metaphysical and cosmological rather than methodological.”

I see no reason to disagree with the above statements. Lindberg makes it clear, in a way that matches what I have observed myself in my own reading, that experiments already existed, carried out by alchemists and many others. Intellectuals were constructing frameworks of ideas about the universe all the way through the medieval period, from the cosmos as a whole to the workings of the human eye. So all that was needed was a change in outlook, not a change in practise.

Which sounds like a strong argument for strong links between medieval alchemy and early modern chymistry. These can be seen in the matter of the ideas used and tried by the early modern scientists.

Unfortunately it is at this point that I have to pause and say that doing a decent post on this part would take days of research, with lots of papers and a number of books to read. The theories which were taken into the scientific revolution were convoluted but I think fairly simple to get the basics of. The ones which grew out of them were many and I find them a bit confusing. I really haven’t got a good handle on the 17th century at all, all I have is some vague ideas and a concept of the century that is fragmented. For instance it is the period of the civil war, but my knowledge of that is divorced from knowledge of the chymists and their work.

Of course if any of you know more and would like to discuss such a topic in a guest post, that would be great.

Nevertheless, with the help of some of the works of William Newman we can see something of the matter.

From his “Atoms and Alchemy”, in chapter 3 he links Aristotelian corpuscular theory with the works of Geber (Something that despite having read Newman’s papers and books, doesn’t feel quite right to me to say that Geber thought of corpuscles in the way Newman thinks he did, but seeing as people seem to agree with him I’ll carry on using his work) Andreas Libavius, the well known early 17th century chymist. The simplest point to be made here is that he and others like him were inheritors of ideas kept alive in part by alchemists, thus they were then made available to the chymists and turned into more modern ideas. This sort of thing can also be found in the atomistic ideas of Daniel Sennet and others.

So what we see is that scientists work embedded in a culture and a network of ideas. This network provides a structure to their experience and work that in the case of early scientists, chymists etc, happened to belong to older and less accurate methods of understanding how part of the world worked, i.e. alchemy, but if alchemy and related subjects hadn’t existed, there simply wouldn’t have been a body of ideas about how the world worked that early scientists could have worked with. They would have been in the position of teenagers at school who don’t have any textbooks, just some equipment, and who would likely derive the sorts of laws and ideas that the ancient Greeks had. (Admit it, you had some funny ideas about how the world worked when you were that age too, and it took ages to disabuse yourself of them)

In this respect the growth of science is somewhat Whiggish, always improving, building upon what has gone before. EVEN if what has gone before is totally wrong. The reaction against the errors is enough to lead to less wrongness, and theories hold until something better is designed.

So to summarise, the importance of alchemy in the history of science lies in the inheritance of substances, practises and ideas which could be used to build a new, different edifice, without which it would have been impossible to so build at that time.

Incidentally, a quote came up on twitter from a book by Pamela Smith, titled “The body of the Artisan”, published in 2006. I quote:

“Alchemy seems to have provided a language for artisans who wanted to articulate their working processes, a well as for scholars who were trying to understand how artisans created things from matter.”

i.e. it crossed the divide between artisans and scholars. This it turned out was rather important for the growth of science, with many of the best scientists in the 17th century being artisans as well, and in a way that tradition was maintained well into the 20th century, with a lot of science being done by people who built and tweaked their own kit.

The final question though, is, do you the reader see or know this, and is it communicated at all, anywhere?

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