A Short History of Chemistry

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   Archiv der Pharmazie

A Short History of Chemistry by Francis Preston Venable was published in 1894.


  • This History has been written because of a conviction, from my own experience and experience with my students, that one of the best aids to an intelligent comprehension of the science of chemistry is the study of the long struggle, the failures, and the triumphs of the men who have made this science for us.
    • Preface
  • Free use has been made of all the chief authorities; the historical works of Kopp, Berthelot, Hoefer, Thomson, Ernst [von] Meyer, Ladenburg, [George Farrer] Rodwell, Muir, Wurtz, Hartmann, [Johann Friedrich] Gmelin, [Karl] Karmarsch, and Siebert, besides the original works of nearly all the chemists mentioned for the past century and a half, have been consulted.
    • Preface

The Genesis of Chemistry[edit]

Among the Ancients[edit]

  • The ovum from which chemistry has... slowly evolved seems to have been sorcery and magic.
   Amun in gold
ca. 800 BC  
  • The word χημεία occurs first in the writings of Suidas, a Greek lexicographer of the eleventh century. It is there defined as the "preparing of gold and silver." This is manifestly a Greek rendering of the name Chema or Chemi, which is of Egyptian origin, and all attempts at deriving it from χεω, to fuse, or χνμα a liquid, are without import.
  • Plutarch tells us that Chemia was a name given Egypt on account of the black soil, and that this term further meant the black of the eye, symbolizing that which was obscure and hidden.
  • The Coptic word khems or chems is closely related to this, and also signifies obscure, occult, and with this is connected the Arabic word chema, to hide.
  • It [chemistry] is therefore the occult or hidden science, the black art.
  • Two difficulties meet one in studying the early history of the science. One is... mysticism... and the other is the custom among the early writers of ascribing their discoveries, books, etc., to fabulous names or ancient heroes and gods. This latter had two objects, the first being to shield the true author in time of persecution, and the second to gain a certain amount of credit and reputation... by the use of the names of such celebrities as Moses, Solomon, Alexander, or Cleopatra. This tendency is especially noticeable among the writers of the Middle Ages, and also the early Greek authors, and is not peculiar to authors of alchemical treatises.
  • No original manuscript of the earliest writers on chemistry or alchemy has been discovered. Our knowledge must be gleaned from the pages of those writing upon other subjects, or must come from fragments handed down to us through several copyists.
  • The reason generally assigned for this absence of early records is that Diocletian burned all writings of the Egyptians bearing upon alchemy, because, as he said, these taught the art of making gold and silver; and, by destroying them, he took away... the power of enriching themselves and rebelling against the Romans.
  • [T]he Chinese... had... knowledge of metals, alloys, colors, and salts for a long time, and that they manufactured gun powder and porcelain before they were known in Europe.
  • In... India... knowledge of the extraction of metals, the making of steel, the preparation of colors, and similar technical operations, dates back to the most remote antiquity. They also theorized as to the elements and their number. Their synonym for death was, "man returns to the five elements."
  • The almost universal tradition among alchemists is that their art was first cultivated among the Egyptians, and that Hermes Trismegistus, the Egyptian god of arts and sciences, was its founder. The finding of papyri of a chemical nature in the tombs... lead us to give credence to this tradition... Clement of Alexandria tells us that the knowledge... was restricted to the priests, who were forbidden to communicate it... Plutarch also mentions the strict secrecy observed, and the cloaking... under the guise of fables.
  • [T]here is a similarity easily detected between the hieroglyphics and the alchemical signs.
  • The phraseology in the early treatises is similar to that in the priestly writings.
  • [N]ote the important part played by the number four with the alchemists as well as with the Egyptian priests. There are the four bases or elements, the tetrasomy of Zosimus; the four zones, four funeral deities, four cardinal points, four winds, four colors, etc.
Egyptian New Kingdom
1550-1307 BC
  • The Chaldeans, as masters of occult sciences, played an important part at Rome. In much earlier times, the Bible mentions them as the depositaries of all wisdom and science... They were rivals of the Egyptians in knowledge, and were especially famous as astrologers. Many industrial arts were brought to as high perfection in Babylon as in Egypt; for instance, the processes of glass-making, of dyeing, and of working in metals. Those Chaldeans who settled in Rome in later years came from Syria and Mesopotamia. Tacitus makes mention of them. They were much sought after by the fashionable as the representatives of Eastern religions and mystic doctrines.
  • Ostanes, the Mede, was one of the celebrated early alchemists. Several writers have recorded for us the existence of a book called The Book of the Divine Prescriptions, which seems to have been the most famous writing of these Persian sages.
  • The belief in some wonderful connection between planets and metals is due to these Chaldeans. The signs of the heavenly bodies became the symbols for the metals. These planets influenced a supposed growth of the metals, and were esteemed all-powerful in regulating human life and fate. Many of these notions are to be attributed to the Alexandrian epoch.
  • The idea of the macrocosm, or outer world, and the microcosm, or little inner world of a man's own nature, which is so often referred to and utilized in alchemical writings, originated also at Babylon.
  • In many of the treatises on alchemy we meet with Jewish names, and some of these writings have been ascribed to Jewish authors. ...[T]he Jews ...were often superstitious, and believers in magic and demons. They were very learned; and at Alexandria, where Greek culture came in contact with the culture of Egypt and of the Chaldeans, the Jews... at the time of the birth of Christianity, were at the head of science and philosophy, and played a very important part in the fusion of Greek doctrines, scientific and religious, with those of the Orient.
  • [A]part from mysticism and magic... the practical and useful came first before all theory.
  • [A]t Babylon and in Egypt, the industrial arts were practised with a high degree of skill; but... all was empirical, and... slow of development. There is little evidence of any attempt at finding out the causes of the changes observed or brought about.

Ancient Alchemists[edit]

  • Hermes Trismegistus... is by some supposed to be identical with Canaan, the son of Ham. The name is synonymous with Toth, the god of intellect, the patron of arts and sciences in ancient Egypt. The adepts in alchemy were unanimous in writing of him as the founder of their art. [P]robably... as the god of letters, all books were dedicated to him and he was in one sense their author. Clement of Alexandria describes the solemn procession in which these books were borne in the great ceremonies. Tin and mercury were set apart as metals sacred to him. During the Middle Ages the science was often known under the name of the Hermetic Art.
  • Albertus Magnus, in a treatise attributed to him, tells us that Alexander the Great found in the sepulchre of Hermes (or in the tomb of Sarah) certain emerald tables inscribed with the secrets of his wisdom. This famous inscription is constantly quoted in books on alchemy. It consisted of thirteen parts or sayings. They are sufficiently obscure to receive almost any interpretation. ...[T]hey refer to the universal medicine or the philosopher's stone. Two quotations will suffice...
    No. 7. Separate the whole earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross, acting prudently and with judgment.
    No. 8. Ascend with the greatest sagacity from the earth to heaven, and then again descend to the earth, and unite together the powers of things superior and things inferior. Thus you will possess the glory of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly far from you.
  • To most this seems a meaningless forgery of the early alchemists. Still, this mystical personage [Hermes Trismegistus] had great influence... through many centuries. We find various axioms ascribed to Hermes, also a mystic hymn, and a so-called instrument or table of figures for predicting the outcome of disease, a life's fate, etc. Such tables were used in very ancient times in Egypt.
  • The alchemists called themselves the Hermetic Philosophers, and followed the Hermetic Art or Hermetics. To close anything very securely, as, for instance, to seal it in a glass tube, is called to this day sealing it hermetically.
  • In old times the symbol of Hermes was affixed to the article, and it was thus sealed with "Hermes, his seal."
Demokritos of Abdera
  • The earliest historical personage connected with alchemy is Demokritos of Abdera... the founder of the atomistic school, extending and developing the theory of Leukippos. His definition of the atom is almost as absolute and precise as that found in modern treatises. His chief work was entitled "Physica et Mystica."
  • Aristotle frequently cites from the writings of Demokritos. Many works have been ascribed to him which were undoubtedly the productions of later centuries. As was customary for men of learning in early times, Demokritos visited Egypt, Chaldea, and various parts of the East, in the search of knowledge, and doubtless owes much to the wise men of those regions.
  • The works of Demokritos and his school formed a sort of encyclopaedia of philosophy and science. These books are unfortunately lost, with the exception of a few fragments.
  • Pliny tells us that Demokritos was instructed in magic by Ostanes the Mede.
  • [T]he Sphere of Demokritos, for foretelling death or recovery from a malady ...was similar to the table of Hermes...
  • It is impossible to tell how much of the magical and alchemical should justly be accredited to [Demokritos].
   Plato & Aristotle
"School of Athens"
by Raphael
  • The observation and experiments necessary for the pursuit of alchemy did not comport with the Greek idea of philosophy. This is shown by the saying of Socrates, that the nature of external objects could be discovered by thought without observation, and by the renunciation of all natural sciences by the Cynics. This came largely from the fact that they saw in the nature around them the mutable only. Plato separated logic, as the knowledge of the immutable, from physics, the knowledge of the mutable. That which was subject to indefinite change would not repay observing nor recording, therefore they could not conceive of astronomy and physics as serious objects of mental occupation. There was nothing to be learned from fields and trees and stones.
  • One of the [Ancient Greek] philosophers is said to have gone to the length of putting out his eyes, in order that his mind might not be influenced by external objects, but might wholly give itself to pure contemplation. The intellectual power and grasp of these philosophers were wonderful, but faulty and misleading, since the real and practical was left out.
  • The Egyptians and other ancient peoples held the same idea of the mutability of all external objects, and the absence of law in their changes. ...The investigation of nature was ...considered impious. The phenomena of nature were brought about by the gods, and their actions should not be inquired into too closely by men. This manner of thinking is not yet extinct.
  • The theories of the early Greek philosophers, then, were not based upon close observation and a multitude of facts experimentally learned... [George Farrer] Rodwell gives a most interesting resume of the theories of these philosophers with regard to the formation of the world and the primal elements. These elements were not the chemical elements of the present day, but rather principles. They meant more the characteristic and essential properties of matter than matter itself.
  • Thales of Miletus... the "first of the natural philosophers," affirmed that water was the first principle of all things. This theory had its supporters even during the Middle Ages, philosophers who got water from air and solids by evaporating water, and carefully proved that plants would grow when fed with water only. The theory was not completely disproved until a little more than a century ago.
  • Anaximenes regarded air as the primal element... According to Anaximenes, clouds are caused by the condensation of air, and rain by the condensation of clouds.
  • Archelaus said that air, when rarefied, became fire; when condensed, water; and water, when boiled, became air.
  • Empedokles introduced the idea of four distinct elements, — earth, air, fire, and water, — which were not interchangeable, but formed all things by mixing.
  • Anaxagoras of Klazomene (500 b.c) seems to have been the first of the Greeks to formulate a theory approaching the atomic. This was more clearly expressed by Leukippos and extended by Demokritos. Long before the time of any of these, however, the idea seems to have been conceived in India.
  • The views of Aristotle ...held undisputed sway for nearly twenty centuries. He introduced... a fifth element, the quintaessentia, which he called ether, more subtle and divine than the other elements. From this comes the word quintessence, so much used by the alchemists... We have to assume the existence of a rarefied ether in the theories of the present day.
Earth, Water, Air, Fire
Aristotelian elements
Middle Ages

Alchemists in the Early Part of the Christian Era[edit]

  • Zosimus, the Panopolite... is the most ancient of the alchemists whose works we possess. ...Suidas, the Greek lexicographer, tells us that he wrote twenty-eight books on alchemy entitled "Manipulations." ...they give us a good idea of the learning... of his times. They contain descriptions of apparatus, of furnaces, studies of minerals, of alloys, of glass-making, of mineral waters, and much that is mystical, besides a good deal referring to the transmutation of metals. He is cited as the author of the saying that like begets like, and is often quoted by the alchemists... spoken of... as a great and learned master of the science.
  • Africanus, another of these alchemists, was a Syrian of the time of Heliogabalus. He is said to have written on medical, agricultural, and chemical subjects. Certain geographical and military works are also attributed to him.
  • Synesius... was named Bishop of Ptolemais, and was an astronomer, physician, agriculturist, and embassador. His works... are mostly philosophical and commentaries on Zosimus.
  • Olympiodorus... wrote a history of his times. He was not so obscure in his language as Zosimus. ...He seems to have been the first to divide matter into the fixed and the volatile, a distinction depending upon the combustibility.
  • These few names serve to give some idea of the character of the Greek alchemists. ...Alexandria had been, during this period, the centre of science and philosophy. ...Under Roman rule and depredations it gradually declined, until by the fourth century no buildings of importance were left in it except the Temple of Serapis... the great bulwark of Greek culture and of medical and alchemical study. ...[T]his also was destroyed in the reign of Theodosius... The Serapeum of Memphis and the Temple of Ptah, where the medical laboratories and the workshops of the alchemists were probably to be found, were destroyed at the same time. And thus the learned men of Greece and Egypt were dispersed, suffering a political and a religious persecution.
  • The light of science was transferred to Constantinople, communicated in the sixth and seventh centuries to the Arabians, and by them in turn to their brothers of Mesopotamia and Spain.
   Palace Alembic
Barcelona, Spain
  • The name alchemy, al-embic, al-cohol, etc., are of Greek origin, with the Arabic article prefixed; and they point to the source of the knowledge possessed by the Arabians when Europe was in darkness.
  • [T]he ancients... had a sort of practical or technical chemistry. In certain branches of metallurgy, in glass-making, dyeing, and tanning, they attained decided proficiency.

Chemical Knowledge Possessed by the Ancients[edit]

  • [A]s to the apparatus used in the work shops... processes used were those requiring the aid of fire; crucibles, furnaces... [T]he treatise of Zosimus, "On Instruments and Furnaces,"... claims to describe the various appliances he saw in the temple at Memphis. These... apparatus were made of gold or bronze or clay-ware. The alembic was a crude form of distilling apparatus, and comes from the Alexandrian period. The water-bath, or bain-marie... was said to have been invented by Mary the Jewess... The blow-pipe and bellows are both figured among these drawings, as well as on very early Egyptian and other monuments.
  • Six metals were well known, — gold, silver, tin, iron, copper, and lead. Homer mentions these six, and the Bible does also; so they seem to have been in use from a very early antiquity. Mercury was afterwards added to the list.
  • The derivation of the word metal is from the Greek word μεραλλάω, "to search after," and the noun first meant or referred to mines.
  • The ancients, especially the Egyptians, were very skilful workers in metals. They made gold wire and leaf, and fine inlaid work, and very beautiful ornaments.
  • Gold was the first known of the metals apparently. Its color, lustre, and malleability attracted the attention of the early peoples. Its occurrence free in nature and in a bright pure state would doubtless account for its being utilized first of the metals. Early vessels were made of it; and it was used for coating, or plating, over wood and other materials.
  • Silver seems to have been known at very nearly the same time as gold. It also occurs free, and was easily prepared ready for use. Then follow copper, iron, tin, and lead.
Cupellation furnaces
  • The purification of gold and silver by the cupellation process was known before the Christian era, but there was no means of separating gold from silver. The alloy of the two metals, as they are often found together in nature, was regarded as a peculiar metal itself, and was called electrum. The oldest coins we have are made of this electron, or pale gold. This alloy was made artificially out of three parts of gold and one of silver.
  • Copper was in use before iron, and was called χαλκός by Homer. From this we get the word chalcopyrite and others. The Romans got it first from the Island of Cyprus, and called it aes cyprium; and from this it became cuprum, and in English copper. It was used mainly in alloys.
  • Aurichalcum, or golden copper, they called the alloy made from copper and an ore of zinc; and this is known now as brass.
  • They were ignorant of the metal zinc in the free state.
   Bronze Mirror  
  • Bronze was an alloy of copper and tin, and was known also before metallic tin. This was very strong, and much easier to work into shape than iron, and hence was a substitute for it. Weapons and many utensils were made from it.
  • Iron was known in very early times; Lepsius maintaining that the Egyptians used it five thousand years ago in the preparation of the harder instruments which they required for... work, as in building the pyramids, and engraving precious stones. Iron was coined by the Greeks, and in the time of Homer they used it for axes and ploughshares. As it rusts so easily very few early implements have come down to us. The early Egyptians understood how to harden or temper iron.
  • Steel was made in India at a very early period. The difficulty of reducing iron from its ores, and the fact that it does not occur free, would account for its not being used more largely and at an earlier time.
  • Tin was obtained from India and Spain and afterwards from Britain. It was one of the articles of commerce used in trade by the Phoenicians. Mirrors were made of it, and copper vessels were coated over with it. Lead and tin seem to have been regarded as varieties of the same metal, and were called plumbum nigrum and plumbum candidum. Pliny speaks of conveying water in leaden pipes, and Homer makes much earlier mention of the metal. It came mainly from Britain and Spain; and from this latter country mercury was also gotten, and was used, as now, in extracting gold from its ores. The first mention of it was in 300 B.C. Native mercury was called argentum vivum (quicksilver), and mercury distilled from cinnabar was known as hydrargyrum (ὔδωρ). Various compounds of these metals were known and used.
   Kohl & Ointment vessels
Kha & Merit tomb
  • The two oxides [cuprous oxide & cupric oxide of copper were used in glass-making; verdigris was manufactured and put to several uses; white lead was used as a cosmetic by the Athenian ladies, and found further use as a medicine; red lead was used as a paint; stibium, or native antimony sulphide, was used as a paint for the eyelashes, and is still used for that purpose in the East under the name of kohl; black oxide of manganese was used in glass-making, especially for clearing up darkened masses, and so got its name of pyrolusite; the native carbonate of zinc was also known and used; the sulphides of arsenic, orpiment and realgar, were well-known pigments.
  • According to Sir Humphry Davy, the ancient Greeks and Romans had almost the same colors as those employed by the great Italian masters at the period of the revival of arts in Italy.
  • Soda and potash were both used in washing and whitening clothes, in glass-making, and in saponifying the fats for soap and unguents.
  • Lime was burned and mortar made from it, though the earliest cementing material was bitumen.
  • Bitumen and asphalt were also used for torches and embalming.
  • The art of glass-making is exceedingly old, and apparently originated with the Egyptians. They reached a high degree of proficiency in its preparation, knowing how to color it, and also how to prepare imitation precious stones from it. Clear, transparent, colorless glass was not known by them, however.
  • [The Egyptians] were... skilful in the production of clay-wares and pottery. The Egyptians decorated these wares with colored enamels. The Etruscans showed great skill in the ceramic art. From the earliest ruins have been unearthed specimens of pottery. The Chinese, alone of early nations, knew how to make porcelain.
  • Dyeing was carried to great perfection. Many vegetable and animal coloring matters were known. Mordants were used, and the effects produced were very beautiful. Paints were also prepared, and applied with brushes. The following mineral colors were known at the time of Pliny : white lead, cinnabar, litharge, smalt, verdigris, ochre, lampblack, realgar, orpiment, and stibnite.
  • Leather was tanned, at first by means of oil, and later with bark, very much after the manner in use now. The hair was removed by means of lime, as is still done. Some leather, said to have been tanned at the time of Solomon, has been found in modern times fairly well preserved.
  • Soap was made by mixing wood ashes with animal fats, thus saponifying them. It was used as a kind of pomatum; unguents, oils, etc., were rubbed upon the body in the place of soap as used in modern times. Both hard and soft soap were known. Burnt lime was often added in the manufacture.
  • Many substances were used as medicaments; some of these might be called chemical preparations, showing an early union between chemistry and pharmacy. Lead plasters were made from litharge and oil, iron rust was used, also alum, soda, and bluestone. The use of sulphur as a disinfectant is mentioned in the well-known passage in Homer, in which he speaks of its being burnt to drive away the evil spirits from a home. It was also used for bleaching purposes. The only acid known was acetic acid, or vinegar; and its solvent power seems to have been greatly over-estimated.

The Alchemists[edit]

The Arabians[edit]

  • About the middle of the eighth century the caliph Al-Mansour... founded the city of Bagdad. ...He founded an academy or university at Bagdad, which became very celebrated. Pupils and professors flocked to it from all quarters, and they numbered at one time as many as six thousand. Hospitals and laboratories were erected, and experimental science began to be properly recognized. ...the successors of Al-Mansour continued his work. Ancient books were collected, and... their store of learning was eagerly saved. For several centuries this great institution of learning flourished.
  • At Fez and Morocco academies were founded, but Spain was still more favored. The caliphate of Cordova was probably the most prosperous and splendid of the Moorish possessions, and the University of Cordova became the most celebrated in the world. It was attended by Christian students from all Western Europe, as well as by Moors. Its library contained two hundred and eighty thousand volumes, the catalogue filling forty-four volumes. The university produced one hundred and fifty authors. Other universities and libraries were scattered through Spain during this, its golden age.
  • Islamism prohibited magic and all arts of divination, and also all dissection of the human body after death. In the hands of the Arabians, therefore, alchemy was chiefly applied to the preparation of medicines. During this period there were two especially famous authors and workers, Geber and Avicenna.
  • Geber (eighth century) was a Sabean of Mesopotamia, of Greek parentage, but a convert to Islam. His name in full was Abou-Moussah-Dschafer-al-Sofi. ...He gathered together all the chemical knowledge attainable, systematized it in a measure, and sought to apply it to medicine.
  • Several manuscripts are to be found in the libraries of Europe, purporting to contain his writings. From what source he derived his knowledge we do not know... His works were translated into Latin in 1529, and into English in 1678. There are four treatises : 1. "Of the Search for Perfection;" 2. "Of the Sum of Perfection;" 3. "Of the Invention of Verity;" 4. "Of Furnaces." ...The object of his work seems to have been the discovery of the philosopher's stone ...He was especially interested in finding out the properties of substances, and experimenting upon the possibility of putting them to use as medicines. In his works we find various additions ...to the chemical knowledge ...possessed by the ancients.
  • He considered all metals as compounds of mercury and sulphur in varying proportions, an opinion which he says he derived from the ancients... Gold and silver were the perfect metals, the others imperfect.
  • He frequently made use of sulphur, and knew many of its properties. Geber writes... " Sulphur is a substance, homogeneous, and of a very strong composition. Although it is a fatty substance, it is not possible to distil its oil from it. It is lost on calcining. It is volatile, like a spirit. Every metal calcined with sulphur augments its weight in a palpable manner. All the metals can be combined with this body except gold, which combines with it with difficulty. Mercury produces with sulphur, by way of sublimation, Uzufur or cinnabar. Sulphur generally blackens the metals. It does not change mercury into gold nor into silver, as has been imagined by some philosophers."
  • As to arsenic, [Geber] says: "Arsenic is composed of a subtile matter, and of a nature analogous to that of sulphur. It is fixed by the metals as sulphur; and one prepares it, like the last, by the calcination of minerals."
  • As a proof of the possibility of transmutation, he gives an example of copper being changed into gold. " In copper mines we see a certain water which flows out and carries with it thin scales of copper, which (by a continued and long-continued course) it washes and cleanses. But after such water ceases to flow... in three years' time... digested with the heat of the sun; and among these scales the purest gold is found..." Very plausible reasoning from defective premises, as Thomson observes.
  • He understood the purification of bodies by crystallization, solution, and filtration, calling the latter process distillation through a filter. The majority of the chemical processes in use up to the eighteenth century were known to Geber.
  • The alkaline carbonates were known to [Geber], and he prepared caustic soda. He knew also saltpetre and sal ammoniac, and evidently made use of the mineral acids, nitric, sulphuric, and aqua regia. He made use of these as solvents, and thus the wet processes of modern chemistry began to substitute the furnaces of the old.
  • Various vitriols or sulphates were spoken of by [Geber], and also borax and purified common salt. Certain compounds of mercury were prepared by him; among others, the chloride or corrosive sublimate and the red oxide.
  • [Geber's] method of preparing silver nitrate, which he discovered. "Dissolve silver calcined in solutive water (nitric acid)... which being done, coct it in a phial with a long neck, the orifice of which must be left unstopped, for one day only, until a third part of the water be consumed. This being effected, set it with its vessel in a cold place, and then it is converted into small fusible stones, like crystal."
  • His [Geber's] philosophy was not very advanced, as he ascribed the various phenomena he observed to occult causes.
  • Avicenna... [exerted] the same influence over medicine that Geber did over chemistry. He was called the Prince of Physicians, and as an authority ranked next to Aristotle and Galen. ...He was the author of the "Canones Medieincœ," a work which was translated into many languages, and was the standard medical authority for several centuries. ...He divided minerals (chemical compounds) into: 1. Infusible minerals; 2. Fusible and malleable (metals); 3. Sulphurous minerals; 4. Salts.
    There was little that was original in the canons of Avicenna, the matter coming mainly from the works of Galen and Aristotle, but there was a clear and orderly arrangement...
  • Avenzoar (eleventh century), a Spanish physician, is quoted as making some additions to the knowledge of medicinal preparations.
  • In the beginning of the twelfth century Averrhoes attained prominence as a physician and chemist.

The Arabists[edit]

  • From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries... decadence of the Moorish power in Europe was... rapid. ...The Arabs... were driven from Spain, and Bagdad was conquered by the Mongols. There was a decline, and then almost complete cessation from literary work. Still, for some centuries... [t]heir writings were translated into Latin and other languages, and formed the chief treasures of medical and scientific men. Their modes of thought and work were often imitated by their monkish successors.
  • The characteristics of the age were a shameful mental imprisonment and caging of the human reason. Free striving for higher light, or criticism of accepted authorities, was looked upon as high treason to the Holy Church, and punished by the Inquisition. Those who dared to think clearly for themselves, wrote mysteriously for their fellows as a measure of safety.
Albertus Magnus
  • Albertus Magnus... was the first eminent German chemist. ...He and his pupil, Thomas Aquinas, are said to have constructed a brazen statue which he animated with his elixir vitœ. It was capable of walking, talking, etc., like a living being, and was very useful as a servant. It was unfortunately very talkative and noisy. It one day so enraged Thomas Aquinas, by constantly interrupting him while he was deeply engaged with mathematical problems, that he took a hammer and broke it in pieces. Of course this is a fanciful account of a noisily creaking automaton, made by these two...
  • Albertus Magnus lectured in Cologne, and great numbers of students flocked to hear him. He skilfully managed to escape the persecution which befell so many of his brother monks who dabbled in the occult art, and was high in the odor of sanctity. His principal writings were the following: "De Rebus Metallicis et Mineralibus;" "De Alchymia;" "Secretorum Tractatus;" "Breve Compendium de Ortu Metallorum;" "Concordantia;" "Philosophorum de Lapide." ...He was the first to use the term "affinitas" to designate the cause of the combination of the metals with sulphur and other elements. The term "vitriol" was also first used by him. He regarded the transmutation of the metals as an assured possibility. He did not regard the metals as distinctly differing substances, but varieties of the same species.
    "The metals are all essentially identical; they differ only in form. Now, the form brings out accidental causes, which the experimenter must try to discover and remove, as far as possible. Accidental causes impede the regular union of sulphur and mercury; for every metal is a combination of sulphur and mercury. A diseased womb may give birth to a weakly, leprous child, although the seed was good; the same is true of the metals which are generated in the bowels of the earth, which is a womb for them; any cause whatever, or local trouble, may produce an imperfect metal. When pure sulphur comes in contact with pure mercury, after more or less time, and by the permanent action of nature, gold is produced."
    His views are in the main those of Geber, though he adds water to mercury and sulphur as one of the constituents of the metals.
  • [Magnus] was a diligent and successful worker, and added many chemical facts to those known by Geber, as, for instance, the purification of gold, the preparation of arsenic, etc.
Thomas Aquinas
  • Thomas Aquinas... was a favorite pupil of Albertus Magnus... He was devoted to mathematics and at the same time was a great alchemist. He... wrote several books on alchemy, all of which are obscure and unintelligible. His chief treatise was the "Most Secret Treasure of Alchemy." He wrote on the making of artificial gems, and, according to some, was the first to make use of the term amalgam for alloys containing mercury.
  • Roger Bacon['s]... success... brought with it the reputation of being in league with the devil, and he was severely persecuted while at Oxford. He did not in this have the good fortune of Albertus Magnus, or lacked his skill and tact. He replied to his accusers by a strong tract, "De Nullitate Magice" in which he showed that no such thing as magic could exist, and that what his accusers thought were the work of spirits were but ordinary operations of nature. Still, in spite of his arguments, he was imprisoned ten years. ...His chief writings were : — 1. "Opus Majus." In this his high appreciation is shown of the experimental method and the inductive philosophy, afterwards advocated by his namesake, Francis Bacon. 2. "Speculum Alchymim." 3. "Breve Breviarium de Dono Dei."
Roger Bacon by James Nasmyth (1845)
  • He [Roger Bacon] collected the facts known to the alchemists before his time, and followed Geber closely in many things. He knew of gun powder, but speaks of it obscurely. According to some he mentions saltpetre and sulphur by name as two constituents, and the third constituent under the anagram luru mone capubre, which is convertible into carbonum pulvere. He probably got this knowledge from some Arabic source. ...Gunpowder was first used by the English at the battle of Crecy, more than fifty years after the death of Bacon.
  • Roger Bacon... subjected organic substances to dry distillation, and noticed that inflammable gases were produced; and he showed that air was necessary for the burning of a lamp. He was an ardent supporter of the belief in the transmutation of the metals, and related some very wonderful things as to the power of the philosopher's stone. ...he drew direct from Albertus Magnus and the Arabians.
  • The following quotation from [Roger Bacon's] treatise "Speculum Secretorum" will serve to give his ideas as to the transmutation of the metals : "To wish to transform one kind into the other, as to make silver out of lead, or gold out of copper, is as absurd as to pretend to create anything out of nothing. The true alchemists never held such a pretence. What is the real problem? The problem is, first, by means of art, to remove from a rough, earthy mineral a bright metallic substance, like lead, tin, or copper. But that is only the first step towards perfection; and the chemist's work must not stop there, for, besides that, he must look for some means of getting the other metals, which are always present in the bowels of the earth in an adulterated condition. For example, the most perfect is gold, which one always finds in the native state. Gold is perfect, because in it nature finished her work. It is necessary, then, to imitate nature; but here a grave difficulty presents itself. Nature does not count the cycles which she takes for her work, to which the term of life of a man is but as an hour. It is, then, important to find some means which will permit one to do in a little time that which nature does in a very much longer time. It is this means which the alchemists call, indifferently, the elixir, the philosopher's stone, etc."

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