A typical alchemical laboratory, as depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder,1558.
Alchemy came into existence like a winged creature touched by the lips of God, bringing with it the promise of wealth and happiness to the poverty-stricken. Little did they realize that despair was upon them and they were driving themselves into the depths of more poverty. Surely, alchemy was evil. It was sorcery. It was not to be trusted.
It might have been evil, but alchemy was the scaffolding of modern chemistry. Unlike the pseudosciences of astrology and phrenology, alchemy wasn’t a fragment that diverged from true science early on, but rather what evolved into it. Alchemy did observe a fair share of charlatans claiming they could bring easy wealth, but it also had genuinely inquisitive minds who wanted to look inside matter and discover its secrets. Alchemists were no less than modern day particle physicists.
It all began with matter.
The first inquisitions about matter came well after mankind had used them for thousands of years. Iron, bronze, and obsidian were used to make weapons, gold was used in jewelry, glass was used to make beads and jars. It was also observed that matter could be changed – water evaporated, and fruits fermented to make alcohol.
Empedocles, line engraving, 1580
Greek philosopher Empedocles proposed (and incorrectly so) that the universe was made of four elements – fire, earth, water, and air. The world was not in possession of appropriate technology to put this theory to test. Empedocles’ contemporary, Democritus, suggested that matter was made up of indivisible particles which were in constant motion, and that these particles only differed from one another in shape and arrangement and could combine with each other. Democritus’ theory was not too far removed from modern atomic theory. He was 24 centuries ahead of his time. However, his theory was rejected and attacked, and fell into a downward spiral when Aristotle validated the four element theory. It is believed that Aristotle was responsible for inhibiting the advancement of chemistry. But alchemy, which is based on the four element theory, does go on to pave the way for modern chemistry.
Fire, Earth, Water and Air.
The world, as alchemists believed, was made up of fire, earth, water, and air. All matter was made up of these elements, and their form could be transformed without changing the elements. Ofcourse this theory is wrong and the world isn’t made up of 4 elements, but it is made up of four states – solid, gas, liquid and energy which can transform one of these states into another. There is some truth to this theory after all.
The Alchemist by Cornelis Pietersz Bega, 1663
Later, alchemists began to believe that essentially, matter had unity. That all matter had a common origin or they possessed a common “soul” housed in a particular form – the outward forms could be changed. In their pictorial representations, this ‘soul’ of matter was often depicted as a white bird flying away from a substance when heat was applied and re-entering it after its form was effectively changed. This changing of forms was known as, in alchemical terms, a transmutation. This is where the idea of transmuting lead into gold came from. The gold scrounging folks saw their chance and became self-proclaimed alchemists.
Nevertheless, there were many alchemists with a nobler objective – the quest for knowledge. They tested virtually every substance known to man at the time, from commonplace materials like wood and stone, to the rare. They performed countless transmutations, and failed, but succeeded in discovering many chemical compounds, acids, salts and alkalis. They are attributed with the discovery of elements like antimony, arsenic, bismuth, phosphorus, and zinc. Metallurgists and doctors frequented them for their chemicals, tools and techniques. They were essentially, chemists.
Science owes a lot to alchemy. When the basic principle behind alchemy was finally replaced with its correct alternative, scientists had a head start. They had a written record of all the properties of every material known. They had the tools, the experimental techniques, and the idea of the laboratory itself.
Alchemists dug deep and uncovered secrets we wouldn’t have known. They purged the darkness for us. They were the last of scientific wizards.