, ,

Whilst distilling at the weekend using a long glass worm to ensure good condensation, I started wondering about the practicality of it all. What I just have not seen in alchemical images showing furnaces and distillation and sublimation and the like is a way of holding all the equipment in it’s proper place. Nor has this been mentioned much if at all in the texts.

For someone interested in the practical side of alchemy, that is an immediate red flag. Maybe all the images I used to think were based in practical reality weren’t!

For instance, here you can see a clamp holding my condensing worm in place:

New serpent in action

So I had a look through various sources.

The first was of course my own blog, wherein I have collected some relevant pictures over the years.

From here:http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2015/04/ointments-and-potions.html

we have a 15th century illustration that, oddly, shows bronze cauldrons being used for distillation, which is unlikely. Moreover there are huge long worms, or condensing tubes coiling out from them. And at the bottom right a collection vessel improbably glued onto an alembic spout and thus hovering in mid air.

So, not the most accurate picture around. There is a complete lack of proper fixing of the tube or collection vessel.

This 1543 German image:


shows an alembic in a fire, standing upright seemingly by itself, and the same with one on the table. So, nothing much there then. The thing is, the general setup of the fire, with bellows and the other equipment, is accurate enough, I’ve seen lots of period drawings like that outside an alchemical context. As if the artist had a decent idea of what they were doing, but accuracy simply didn’t matter.


This one has a levitating vessel (15th century).

This other 15th century one sensibly has a shelf for the collecting vessel tacked on the side of the furnace, but as seems common expects the condensing ot take place in the alembic or it’s spout:


This 18th century one, I can only assume that the vessels and tubes are made of copper, in which case they would surely be strong enough to work in this setup, especially since they pierce the barrel of water which would hold them in place: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/result.html?_IXMAXHITS_=1&_IXACTION_=query&_IXFIRST_=16&_IXSR_=EKMVUd0idHV&_IXSS_=_IXMAXHITS_%3d15%26_IXFPFX_%3dtemplates%252ft%26_IXFIRST_%3d1%26c%3d%2522historical%2bimages%2522%2bOR%2b%2522contemporary%2bimages%2522%2bOR%2b%2522corporate%2bimages%2522%2bOR%2b%2522contemporary%2bclinical%2bimages%2522%26%252asform%3dwellcome%252dimages%26%2524%253dsi%3dtext%26_IXACTION_%3dquery%26i_pre%3d%26IXTO%3d%26t%3d%26_IXINITSR_%3dy%26i_num%3d%26%2524%253dsort%3dsort%2bsortexpr%2bimage_sort%26w%3d%26%2524%253ds%3dalchemy%26IXFROM%3d%26_IXshc%3dy%26%2524%2b%2528%2528with%2bwi_sfgu%2bis%2bY%2529%2band%2bnot%2b%2528%2522contemporary%2bclinical%2bimages%2522%2bindex%2bwi_collection%2bor%2b%2522corporate%2bimages%2522%2bindex%2bwi_collection%2529%2529%2band%2bnot%2bwith%2bsys_deleted%3d%252e%26_IXrescount%3d503&_IXSPFX_=templates%2ft&_IXFPFX_=templates%2ft

This 1677 drawing seems to suggest supporting columns for a long neck and alembic:



The above from the same MS as the one with the monks, and shows a shelf and collecting vessel, with a long retort like alembic leading into it.

Even old Greek texts show levitating vessels attached as if at a fairground ride to an alembic that amazingly stands upright without any stress on it:


The Summa Perfectionis, obviously written by a practical alchemist, has nothing much about distillation; it really became part of European alchemy at a slightly later date, despite it’s long use in Arabic Alchemy. It does however use sublimation, but doesn’t go into much detail about exactly how it is to be done. The same can be said about the Invention of Verity.

The Libellus de Alchmia also uses distillation and sublimation, and the use of a lute made of Cretan earth pulverised with flour mixed with egg albumen for sealing glassware, but nothing about the stability of the equipment or size of alembic and cucurbit. Of course if the lute is strong and holds well the alembic will be well held on top of the cucurbit, and I have found that to be the case over the years. So some support for that part of the setup is not necessary.

Interestingly the Heines translation of the Libellus has a plate showing a picture from the MS 184 Liber Ebubacre, fol. 234 in the University Library at Bologna. This shows an alembic with a long windy tube coming out of it very like mine, labelled “Distillatorium”, but of course it is unclear, out of context whether it is supposed to be for alcohol or something else, and whether it is made of copper or glass.

Now, here is an early 17th century illustration: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/result.html?_IXMAXHITS_=1&_IXACTION_=query&_IXFIRST_=270&_IXSR_=EKMVUd0idHV&_IXSS_=_IXMAXHITS_%3d15%26_IXFPFX_%3dtemplates%252ft%26_IXFIRST_%3d1%26c%3d%2522historical%2bimages%2522%2bOR%2b%2522contemporary%2bimages%2522%2bOR%2b%2522corporate%2bimages%2522%2bOR%2b%2522contemporary%2bclinical%2bimages%2522%26%252asform%3dwellcome%252dimages%26%2524%253dsi%3dtext%26_IXACTION_%3dquery%26i_pre%3d%26IXTO%3d%26t%3d%26_IXINITSR_%3dy%26i_num%3d%26%2524%253dsort%3dsort%2bsortexpr%2bimage_sort%26w%3d%26%2524%253ds%3dalchemy%26IXFROM%3d%26_IXshc%3dy%26%2524%2b%2528%2528with%2bwi_sfgu%2bis%2bY%2529%2band%2bnot%2b%2528%2522contemporary%2bclinical%2bimages%2522%2bindex%2bwi_collection%2bor%2b%2522corporate%2bimages%2522%2bindex%2bwi_collection%2529%2529%2band%2bnot%2bwith%2bsys_deleted%3d%252e%26_IXrescount%3d503&_IXSPFX_=templates%2ft&_IXFPFX_=templates%2ft

with a more practical bent, and it looks good to me, except of course there aren’t any worms.

Same with this 1475 image:


the collecting vessel is securely held, and the alembic is doing most of the cooling.

Indeed, if we turn to Ar-Rhazi, his Secret of Secrets is often praised for it’s similarity to a modern laboratory manual, and it does indeed have recipes for a lute for glass vessels and sometimes says to seal them with this, or flour, salt and water, but generally it doesn’t discuss the need for lute when distilling, and it certainly doesn’t discuss any need to support your equipment.

The Voarchadumeia, despite it’s reputation as having some good practical work inside it, does not really cover distillation, which reinforces my idea about a general split in practical alchemy that widened in the late medieval period into two approaches, one requiring distillation of various ingredients and partially complete substances, and that which does not. The split of course goes back to the origins of alchemy, but later on entire treatises could be written with one approach or the other not appearing in it.

Then there is The Key of Alchemy by Samuel Norton, which has some accurate enough drawings in it, and practical alchemy of the Sericonian sort, as well as mentioning Paracelsus and lute and quotes Geber on stopping up a vessel with a close stopper or linen cloth but doesn’t include the lute recipe or how to hold the vessels in place, so again it seems likely that they will sit properly within the furnace and be held up in that way.

Various people have pinned almost all the available pictures from Adam Maclean’s website on pinterest:

Look as much as I can and I can’t see any useful images that show anything different to that discussed above.

There is this as well on pinterest:


which is undoubtedly late medieval, and shows the usual floating receiver and a small alembic with drops coming out of its long spout. I am starting to think that mine are wrong in that their spouts are too short. But at face value it confirms that the cooling is supposed to be done by the long spout and perhaps the receiver.

There’s always Harley 2407 as well:

And the remarkably stable cucurbits in Thomas Norton’s Ordinal (This is a later copy, but the original is the same):

Ferg191_41 nortons furnaces


As far as I am concerned the accuracy of the images in this work take a hit because of it. Yet they do match what we would expect from the equipment of the period. Perhaps the artist wanted to show off the cucurbits rather than bury them in the furnaces as they should be, maybe to inform the reader of their shape and size?

Consideration of non-alchemical sources is useful

We see for instance in Heironymous Braunschweig’s virtuous book of distillation that he rests his receiving vessel on the ground and the liquid drips into it, or else they sit on shelves. Either way the cooling is done by the alembic itself.


Which only works if your alembic can dissipate more heat than is imparted into it from the condensing vapour, which could be the case if the distillation is done slowly and carefully.

You can also see in this one:


that the whole setup is fanciful, yet also seemingly made of glass, which is inherently held up by the vertical column, so it isn’t put under too much strain.

Or the 1576 Conrad Gesner work on distillations:



which clearly shows stools holding the collecting vessels and long spouts on the alembics.

There is also the Pyrotechnia of Biringuccio, which shows a lot of practical things. Including distillation of acids, and most illustrations show it done with big cucurbits, alembics with long spouts leading to collecting vessels sitting on rings held up by legs. So very practical. There are a couple of work condensers showed, but they are made of tinned copper and thus would be strong enough. Of course the alembics seem to magically stay glued in place, but my experience is that good lute will hold an alembic in place as long as whatever it is attached to is also held properly. The long spouts on the alembics make me wonder, but I think they would be secure enough if properly luted.

And surely this one in Conrad Gesner is also made of copper:


There is also Lazarus Erckers “Treatise on ores and assaying”, which informs the reader on how to make a variety of parting acids by distillation. The vessels used are similar to those of Biringuccio,

He also writes about the distillation of quicksilver to separate it from gold, but only through the picture do you see that the reciever is suppposed to be very large, several times the volume of the oroginal liquid. And well sealed with lute of course. The lute recipe for glassware, given on page 139 (1951 edition), is messy but undoubtedly effective, but again from the pcitures and shapes of vessels, it is clear that there is no need for any supporting superstructure and no provision for cooling. Page 149 goes into more detailabout how to do it, and there is indeed a lot of vapour filling the reciever at hee start, but then he writes about drops falling into it, so it is clear that the condensation is supposed to occur in the alembic at times, but again the illustration on page 159 shows very large recievers, so I suppose either can happen.

Compared to my equipment, his have bigger alembics with longer spouts, as we have seen in earlier illustrations. It would be nice if mine were like that too, but that would require more glass and expense in the making.

Finally, there’s Breughel’s alchemist,


which shows large ceramic distillation apparatus that is quite stable by itself.


The ultimate question though is, how much of what is written assumes correct and useful prior knowledge? I can easily accept that the illustrations are as much to show off your knoweldge and the wealth of equipment used or necessary, or to give the reader an idea of what the vessels look like (So many alchemical MS have later marginal illustrations that I suspect readers desired such pictures), but a lack of instructions about how to support worms and vessels is perplexing, since it suggests that you are supposed to know to do whatever you feel necessary to support them, or else that even fewer alchemical works and their illustrations are based on genuine practical knowledge, or finally that they don’t need supporting at all when properly seated in the furnaces and the concern of later chemistry with cooling and condensation is just irrelevant.

Another implication is that the distillations were carried out more slowly and carefully than otherwise expected, and this means the cooling of the alembic and it’s spout are enough to deal with it. Sometimes texts demand a large receiver, and this is shown in Biringuccio’s pictures of the making of acids, and so the cooling of vapours will occur within them.

So in a way I am following the wrong idea, and worms are really only useful for making spirits of wine, when the extra cooling area is required and the works which mention it just don’t care about the structures necessary to support them because you will have learnt about them already.

Some more thoughts about texts and practise

It struck me that maybe the secrets are not just the ingredients and abstract names of the techniques to make the stone, but also a proper understanding of the use of the technology, i.e. what your master really passes on is not just “take x and distill with Y”, but “Distillation is done like this with this lute and you must take care to heat at exactly ….” As usual though alchemical texts are an extremely mixed bag with regard to specific information, all of the above being mentioned in various texts but not always in the same one.