Alchemy pictureAlchemy Web Quest


Introduction | Task | Procedure | Evaluation | Conclusion | Resources | A Little History of Alchemy | Harry Sheppard's Definition | What is Alchemy? | Chinese Alchemy | Greek Alchemy | Alchemists Throughout Time | Events of The Alchemists



The Historical Division of the American Chemical Society (A.C.S.), the largest professional organization in the world, has asked you and up to three others to assist them with a project. They wish to research the early development of Chemistry by studying the historical relevance of four different Alchemists from the 13th to the 18th Century. After the completion of your research, your group will present a paper to the A.C.S. who will evaluate your work and determine if it warrants additional inquiry (and grant money, which is always a good thing!)



When you complete your research you will present to the A.C.S. committee a paper of your experiences which will include the following:



First you will assemble a Web Quest Team of up to four people. Each team will investigate four famous alchemists between the 13th through 18th centuries.

Here are some questions which should be considered when investigating an Alchemist:



Each Web Quest Team member can receive a maximum of 5 extra credit points for completing this Web Quest. 3 points shall address the perspective statement created by each individual Team member, and 2 points shall address the group work used to complete the paper.

Grading shall be based on neatness, spelling errors, accuracy of information gathered, quality of list of references, and similar criteria. In addition, each participant shall anonymously complete an evaluation form for each Team member which will affect the final grade. For more information, contact the author.



Alchemists formed an important scientific link in Europe between the "enlightened" scientific Greek / Roman cultures and the Renaissance. While others were fighting simply to survive, alchemists attempted to keep the torch of enlightenment burning during the Dark Ages. Can you think of other scientific or socio-economic movements which might be similar to the alchemists?



The Alchemy Home
Excellent. For the works of the ALCHEMISTS.

Selected Classic Papers from the History of Chemistry
(Carmen Giunta's classic chemistry page Links to John's Homepage too)


A Little History of Alchemy
From The Norton History of Chemistry


What is Alchemy? | Chinese Alchemy | Greek Alchemy | Alchemists Throughout Time | Events of The Alchemists | Top of Page



In 1477, Thomas Norton of Bristol composed the lively early English poem The Ordinall of Alchemy. Here he expounded in an orderly fashion the procedures to be adopted in the alchemical process, just as an Ordinal lists chronologically the order of the Church's liturgy for the year. Unfortunately, although the reader learned much of would-be alchemical mistakes, and of the ingredients and apparatus, of the subtle and gross works, and of the financial backing, workers and astrological signs needed to conduct the Great Work successfully, the secret of transmutation remains tantalizingly obscure.

19th Century: Justus von Liebig's presumption, still widespread, was that alchemy was the precursor of chemistry and that modern chemistry arose from a rather dubious, if colorful, past.

But what is alchemy? The familiar response is that it involved in the pursuit of the transmutation of base metals such as lead into gold. Carl Jung pointed out in his study of Psychology and Alchemy that the most obvious explanation for this is that alchemical activities were often concerned with a spiritual quest by human kind to make sense of the universe.

12th Early twentieth century Arthur J. Hopkins (1864-1939), showed how they could be interpreted as practical procedures involving dyeing and a series of color changes. He was able to show how Greek alchemists, influenced by Greek philosophy and the practical knowledge of dyers, metallurgists and pharmacists, had followed out three distinctive transmutation procedures, which involved either tincturing metals or alloys with gold or chemically manipulating a "prime matter" mixture of lead, tin, cooper and iron through a series of black, white, yellow and purple stages, or as in the surviving fragments of Mary the Jewess, using sublimating sulfur to color lead and copper.

 Mircea Eluade (1907-86), who, following studies of contemporary metallurgical practices of primitive peoples in the 1920s, firmly placed alchemy in the context of anthropology and myth in Forgerons et Alchimistes(1956).

 Harry Sheppard's broad definition of the nature of Alchemy :

Alchemy is a cosmic art by which parts of that cosmos - the mineral and animal parts - can be liberated from their temporal existence and attain states of perfection, gold in the case of minerals and for humans, longevity, immortality, and finally redemption. Such transformations can be brought about on the one hand, by the use of a material substance such as "the philosopher's stone" or elixir or, on the other hand, by revelatory knowledge or psychological enlightenment.

This definition makes it clear that there were two kinds of alchemical activity, the exoteric or material and the esoteric or spiritual, which would be pursued separately or together, but that time was a significant element in alchemy's practices and rituals.

Also this definition implies that, for the alchemist, the attainment of the goals of material, and/or spiritual, perfection will mean an attainment of independence from worldly economic cares, and spiritually by the achievement of immortality. This definition allows us to now accept that alchemy arose in various (perhaps all?) early cultures.

The biochemist and Sinologist, Joseph Needham, has called the belief and practice of using botanical, zoological mineralogical and chemical knowledge to prepare drugs or elixirs 'macrobiotics', and has found considerable evidence that the Chinese were able to extract steroid preparation from urine.

Alongside macrobiotics, Needham has identified two other operational concepts found in alchemical practice throughout the world, aurifiction (auri-fiction) and aurifaction (auri-faction). Aurifiction, or gold-faking, which is the imitation of gold or other precious materials - whether as deliberate deception or synthetic products) - is associated with technicians and artisans. Aurifaction, or gold-making, is 'the belief that it is possible to make gold (or "a gold", or an artificial "gold") indistinguishable from or as good as (if not better than) natural gold, from other different substances'.

Chinese Alchemy

Aurifactional alchemical ideas and practices were prevalent as early as the fourth century BC in China and were greatly influenced by the Taoist religion and philosophy devised by Lao Tzu (c.600 BC) and embodied in his Tao Te Ching (The Way of Life). Like the later Stocs, Taosim conceived the universe in terms of opposites:  the male, positive, hot and light principle. 'Yang'; and the female, negative, cool and dark principle, 'Yin'. The struggle between these two forces generated the five elements, water, fire, earth, wood,  and metal, from which all things were made.


Metal         Earth      Wood


Unlike later Greco-Egyptian alchemy, however, the Chinese were far less concerned with preparing gold from inferior metals than in preparing 'elixirs' that would bring the human body into a state of perfection and harmony with the universe so that immortality was achieved. In Taoist theory this required the adjustment of the proportions of Yin Yang in the body. This could be achieved practically by preparing elixirs from substances rich in Yang , such as red-blooded cinnabar (mercuric sulphide), gold and its salts, or jade. This doctrine led to careful empirical studies discoveries as gunpowder - a reaction between Yin-rich saltpetre and Yang-rich sulphur - fermentation industries and medicines that must have been rich in sexual hormones.

Beliefs in the transformation of blood like cinnabar into gold dates from 133 BC when Shao-chun appealed to the Emperor Wu Ti to support his investigations.

"Summon spirits and you will be able to change cinnabar powder into yellow gild. With this yellow gold you may make vessels to eat and drink out of. You will increase you span of life. You will be able to see the hsien of the Píeng-lai [home of the Immortals] that is in the midst of the sea. Then you may perform the sacrifices fang and shang and escape death"
From then on, many Chinese texts referred to the consumption of potable gold. This wai tan form of alchemy, which was systematized by Ko Hung in the fourth century AD, was not, however, the only form of Chinese alchemy.

The Chinese also developed nai tan, or physiological, alchemy, in which longevity and immortality were sought not from the drinking of an external elixir, but from an 'inner elixir' provided by the human body itself (respiratory, gymnastic and sexual exercises). With the ever-increasing evidence of poisoning from wai tan alchemy, nai tan became popular from the sixth century AD, causing a diminution of laboratory practice. On the other hand, nai tan seem to have encouraged experimentation with the body fluids such as urine, whose ritualistic use may have led to the Chinese isolation of sex hormones.

Medicine and alchemy were always intimately connected in Chinese alchemy.

Gunpowder and fireworks were probably the two most important chemical contributions of Chinese alchemy, and vividly displayed the power of chemistry to do harm and good.

Greek Alchemy

Alchemy became a science when the masses of technical lore connected with dyeing and metallurgy became confronted by Greek theories of matter and change. Greek philosophers with their strong sense of rationality and logic contributed a theory of matter that was able to order, classify and explain technological practice.

The Pre-Socratic philosophers of the sixth century BC (Plato (c427 BC - c347 BC), Aristotle (384-322 BC), and Empedocles (d. c. 430 BC)) proposed that a quartet of elemental substances, in their turn, mixes together in various proportions to generate perceptible substances. Conversely, material substances could, at least in principle and often in practice, be analyzed into these four components:

WATER     has qualities moist and cold

AIR            has qualities moist and hot

FIRE          has qualities dry and hot

EARTH     has qualities dry and cold

The theory of theses four elements was to remain the fundamental basis of theoretical chemistry until the eighteenth century.

For Aristotle there was a fundamental distinction between the physics of the heavens (which were eternal, perfect, unchanging and endowed with natural circular motion) and the sublunar sphere of the earth (which was subject to change and decay) and where movement was either upwards or downwards from the center of the universe. This sublunar region was composed from Empedocles' four elements. Aristotle had rejected the atomic theory introduced in the fifth century BC by Democritus.

The claim that the apparent differences between substances arose from differences in the shapes and sizes of uncuttable, homogeneous particles was ingenious, but it seemed to Aristotle to be pure invention. The four elements lay close to human sensory experience of solids and liquids and of wind and fire, or of hot and cold, wet and dry objects. How could atomism account for the wide variety of shapes and forms found in minerals in the absence of a formal cause? Moreover, to Aristotle, the postulation of a void meant that there was no explanation for motion, and without motion there could be no change.

Atomism also failed to distinguish between physical and mathematical division - a problem that was overcome after Aristotle's death by Epicurus (341-270 BC), who allowed that, although atoms were the unsplittable physical minima of matter, because an atom had definite size, it could be said to contain mathematically indivisible parts. Epicurus also explained the compounding of atoms together as they fell with equal speeds through the void as due to sudden 'swerves' or deviations.

These unpredictable swerves are a reminder that atomism, as popularized in Epicurean philosophy, had more to do with the establishment of a moral and ethical philosophy than as an interpretation of the physics and chemistry of change. Swerving atoms allowed for human free will. Atomism for the Epicureans, as well as for its great poetic expositor, the Roman Lucretius in De rerum natura (c. 55 BC), was a way of ensuring human happiness by the eradication of anxieties and fears engendered by religions, superstitions and ignorance. Ironically, in the sixteenth century, atomism began to be used as a way of eliminating the superstitions and ignorance of Aristotlelianism.

The Stoicism, founded by the Athenian, Zeno (342-270 BC) during the fourth century BC and refined and developed up to the time of Seneca in the first century AD, retained Aristotle's plenistic physics and argued for the indefinite divisibility of matter.

Stoics laid stress on the analogy between macrocosm and microcosm, the heaven and the earth. They also distinguished between inert matter and a more active form, the latter being called the pneuma, or vital spirit. Pneuma pervaded the whole cosmos and brought about generation as well as decay. Ordinary substances, as Empedocles and Aristotle had taught, were composed from the four elements, albeit hot and dry, fire and air were more active than passive earth and water into cohesive substances. The concept was to have a profound effect on the interpretation of distillation.

Chemical compounds (an anachronism, of course) were mixtures of these four elements in varying proportions - albeit Aristotle's and the Stoics' views were rather more sophisticated than this bald statement suggests. The central theorem of alchemy, transmutation, could be seen in one caused by the different proportions of elements and their rearrangement, or as real transmutations in which the qualities of the elements are transformed.

Alchemy allowed far more 'transmutations' than later chemistry was to allow, for it permitted the transmutation of lead or other common metals into gold or some other precious metal. A real transmutation of lead and gold was to be achieved by stripping lead of its qualities and replanting the basic matter that was left with the qualities and attributes of gold.

Since lead was dense, soft and gray while gold was dense, soft and yellow, only a change of color seemed significant. However, although alchemy is usually taken to be the science of restricted metallic transmutations, it is worth emphasizing that it was really concerned with all chemical changes. In that very general sense, alchemy was the basis of chemistry.

Egypt during the Hellenistic period from about 300 BC to the first century AD was then a melting pot for Greek philosophy, oriental and Christian religions, astrology, magic, Hermeticism and Gnosticism, as well as trade and technology. Hermeticism, which took its title from Hermes, the Greek form of the Egyptian deity, Thoth, the father of all book learning, was a blend of Egyptian religion, Babylonian astrology, Platonism and Stoicism. Its vast literature, the Hermetic books, supposedly written by Hermes Trismegistus, was probably compiled in Egypt during the second century BC.

Gnosticism, on the other hand, was an ancient Babylonian religious movement, which stressed the dualism between light and darkness, good and evil. Gnosis was knowledge obtained only through inner illumination, and not through reason or faith. Humankind was assured of redemption only from this inner enlightenment. Gnosticism both compared with early Christianity and influenced the writing of the Gospels. As its texts show, however, Gnosticism was as much influenced by contemporary alchemy as it influenced alchemical language.

Most historians have seen three distinctive threads leading towards the development of Hellenistic alchemy: the empirical technology and Greek theories of matter already referred to, and mysticism - an unsatisfactory word that refers to a rag-bag of magical, religion and seemingly irrational and unscientific practices. Undoubtedly this third ingredient left its mark on the young science, and it in turn has left its mark on 'mysticism' right up until the twentieth century. In Hellenistic Egypt, as in Confucian China, there was a distinctive tendency to turn aside from observation and experiment and the things of this world to seek solace in mystical and religious revelations. It was the absorption of this element into alchemy that splintered its adherents into groups with different purposes and which later helped to designate alchemy as a pseudo-science.

Greek pharmacists mixed, purified, heated and pulverized minerals and plants to make salves and tinctures. In Greek texts the word for a chemical regent is, significantly, pharmakon.

The modern theory is, therefore that practical alchemy was the bastard child of medicine and pharmacy, as well as of dyeing and metallurgy. By applying Aristotelian, Neoplatonic, Gnostic and Stoic ideas to the practices of doctors and artisans, Greek alchemists reinterpreted practices of the seventh-century AD text by Stephanos of Alexandria, 'On the great and sacred art, or the making of gold', in which he attacked goldsmiths for practicing aurifiction. If such craftsmen had been properly educated in philosophy, he commented, they would know that gold could be made by means of an actual transformation.

For one group of such-minded people, the religious ritual grew at the expense of laboratory and work shop practice. This esoteric alchemy is mires the province of the psychologist and psychiatrist, as Jung claimed, or of the historian of religion and anthropology, than of the historian of chemistry. Nevertheless, as in the case of Isaac Newton, the historian of science must at all times be aware that, until the nineteenth century at least, most scientific activities were, fundamentally, religious ones. The historian of chemistry must not be surprised to find that even the most transparent of experimental texts may contain language that is allegorical, symbolic and which is capable of being read in a spiritual way.

Exoteric alchemists continued their experimental labors and discovered much that was useful then and later; they also suffered the indignities of bad reputation stemming from less noble confidence tricksters. Another group became interested in theories of matter and promoted discussion of ideas of articles, atoms or minima naturalis.

The primitive notion that metals grew inside the earth had been supported by Aristotle in his treatise Meteorologica - the title referred to the physics of the earthly, as opposed to the celestial, sphere, and had nothing to so with weather forecasting. Less perfect metals, it was supposed, slowly grew to become more noble metals like gold.

Nature performed this cookery inside her womb over long periods of time. It was for this reason that during the middle ages mines were sometimes sealed so as to allow exhausted seams to recover and for more metals to grow. If one interpreted the artisans' aurifictions as aurifactions, then it appeared that they had successfully succeeded in repeating Nature's process in the workshop in a short time. Perhaps further experimentation would bring to light other techniques for accelerating natural alchemical processes.

Although Aristotle had never meant by "prime matter" a tangible stuff that could be separated from substances, this was certainly how later chemists came to think of it. Similarly the tactile qualities became substantialized (substantial forms) and frequently identifies with the aerial or liquid products of distillation, or pneuma.

In gold-making, much of the use of analogy was made. Since there is a cycle of death and regrowth in Nature from the seed, its growth, decay and regeneration to seed once more, the alchemist can work by analogy. Lead is taken and "killed" to remove its form is impressed by planting a seed of gold on the unformed matter. To grow this seed, warmth and moisture were requisite, and to perform the process, apparatus of various kinds - stills, furnaces, beakers and baths - was required, much of it already available firm artisans or readily adapted from them.

A secret technical vocabulary was developed in order to maintain a closed shop and to conceal knowledge from the uninitiated, a language that through its long history became more and more picturesque and fanciful. In Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens (1618), we read that "The grey wolf devours the King, after which it is buried on a pyre, consuming the wolf and restoring the King to life." All becomes clear when it is realized that this refers to an extraction of gold from its alloys by skimming off lesser metal sulfides formed from a reaction with antimony sulphide and the roasting of the resultant gold - antimony alloy until only gold remains. As Lawrence Principe has noted, this incomprehension on our part is surely little different from today's mystification when the preparative organic chemist issues the order, "dehydrohalogenate vicinal dihalides with amide ion to provide alkynes". In other words, although alchemists undeniably practiced deliberate obfuscation, much of our incomprehension stems from its being in a foreign language, yet much of this vocabulary has been lost, On the other hand, we must recognize that obscurity also suited the rulers and nobility of Europe who patronized alchemists in the hope of solving their monetary problem.


Greek alchemy spread geographically with Christianity and so passed to the Arabs, who were also party to the ideas and practices of Indian and Chinese technologists and alchemists. The story that alchemical texts were burned and alchemists expelled from Egypt by the decree of the Emperor Diocletian in 292 AD appears to be legendary. Alchemy does not seem to have reached the Latin west until the eleventh century when the first translations from the Arabic began to appear. In Arabic alchemy (the word itself is, of course, Arabic), we meet for the first time the notion of the philosopher's stone and potable gold or the elixir of life. Both these ideas are found in Chinese alchemy. Two alchemists who were much revered later in the Latin west were Jabir and Rhazes.

The Jabirian corpus as well as the Latin Summa were important for introducing the sulphur-mercury theory of metallic composition. According to this idea, based upon Aristotle's explanation in Meteorological, metals were generated inside the earth by the admixture of a fiery, smoky principle, sulphur, to a watery principle, mercury. This also seems to have been a conflation with Stoic alchemical ideas that metals were held together by a spirit (mercury) and soul (sulphur). The theory was to lend itself beautifully to symbolic interpretation as a chemical wedding and to lead to vivid conjugalimages in later alchemical texts and illustrations. As critics in the Latin west like Albertus Magnus were to point out later, this did not explain satisfactorily how the substantial forms of different metals and minerals were produced . What is most interesting, therefore, is that the Summa clearly speaks of a particulate or corpuscular theory based upon Aristotle's concession, despite his objection to atomism, that there were minima naturalia (or "molecules" as we would say) which limit the analysis of all substances. The exhalation of the smaller particles of sulphur and mercury inside the earth lead to a thickening and mixing together until a solid homogeneity results. Metals vary in weight (density or specific gravity) and form because of the differing degrees of packing of their constituent particles - implying that lighter metals had larger particles separated by larger spaces. Since the particles of noble metals such as gold were closely packed, the alchemists' task, according to the author of the Summa, was to reduce the constituent particles of lighter, baser metals in size and to pack them closer together. Hence the emphasis upon the sublimation of mercury and its fixation the practical procedures described by Geber. As in the original Jabirian writings, such changes to the density, malleability and color of metals were ascribed to mercurial agents that were referred to as "medicines", "elixirs" or "tinctures". Although these terms were also adopted in the west, it became even more common to refer to the agent as the "philosopher's stone" (lapidens philsosphorum). References to a stone as the key to transmutation in fact do back to Greek alchemy and have been found in a Cairo manuscript attributed to Agathodaimon, as well as in the earliest known alchemical encyclopedia, the Cheirokmeta attributed to Zosimos (c. 300 AD).

Apart from its influence in alchemical practice, the Summa also contained an important defense of alchemy and, with it, of all forms of technology. Alchemy had always been too practical an art to be included in the curriculum of the medieval university; moreover, it had seemed theologically suspect insofar as it offered sinful human kings the divine power of creation. However, the Summa author argues that people had the ability to improve on Nature because that was part of their nature and cited, among other things, farmers' exploitation of grafting and alchemists' ability to replicate (synthesize certain chemicals found naturally). As Newman suggested:

"During this innovative period, alchemical writers and their allies produced a literary corpus which was among the earliest in Latin to actively promote the doctrine that art can equal or outdo the products of nature, and that man can even change the order of the natural world by altering the species of those products. This technological dream, however premature, was to have a lasting effect on the direction taken by Western culture. "

Exoteric alchemy, committed as it was to laboratory manipulation, in this way bequeathed a commitment to empiricism in science and emphasized the centrality of experiment.

Al-Razi (850-c. 923), or Rhazes, was a Persian physician and alchemist who practiced in Baghdad and who compiled the extremely practical text, Secret of Secrets, which, despite its esoteric title and hint of great promises, was a straightforward manual of chemical practice. Rhazes classifies substances into metals, vitriols, boraxes, salts and stones on the grounds of solubilities and tastes, and added Sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride), prepared by distilling hair with salt and urine, to the alchemist's repertory of substances. Sal ammoniac was soon found to be most useful in coloring metals and in dissolving them.

A rationalist and systematist, Rhazes seems to have been among the first to have codified laboratory procedures into techniques of purification, separation, mixing and removal of water, or solidification, But although he and other Arabic authorities refereed to "sharp waters" obtained in the distillation of mixtures of vitriol, alum, salt, saltpetre and sal ammoniac, it is doubtful whether these were any more than acid salt solutions. On the other hand, it was undoubtedly true that by following the procedures laid down by Rhazed and by modifying still-heads that Europeans first prepared pure sulfuric, hydrochloric and nitric acids in the thirteenth century.

The Secrets of Secrets was divided into sections on substances - a huge list and description of chemicals and minerals - apparatus and recipes. Among the apparatus described and used were beakers, flasks, phials, basins, crystallization dishes and glass vessels, jugs and casseroles. Candle and naphtha lamps, braziers, furnaces (athanors), files, spatulas, hammers, ladles, shears, tongs, and water baths, hair and linen filters, alembics (stills), aludels, funnels, cucurbits (flasks), and pestles and mortars - indeed, the basic apparatus that was to be found in alchemical, pharmaceutical and metallurgical workshops until the end of the nineteenth century. Similarly, Rhazes' techniques of distillation, sublimation, calcination and solution were to be the basis for chemical manipulation and chemical engineering from then onwards. We must be careful, however, not to take later European artists' representations of alchemical workshops at face value.

A few of the techniques described by Rhazes deserve further comment. Calcination originally meant the reduction of any solid to the state of a fine powder, and often involved a change of composition brought about by means of strong heat from a furnace. Only later, say by the eighteenth century, did it come to mean specifically the reduction of a metal to its calx or oxide. There were many different kinds of furnace available and they varied in size according to the task in hand. Charcoal, wood and straw were used (coal was frowned upon because of the unpleasant fumes it produced). The temperature was raised blacksmith-fashion by means of bellows - hence the derogatory names of "puffers" or "workers by fire" that ere applied to alchemists. Direct heat was often avoided in delicate reactions by the use of sand, dung or water baths, the latter (the bain-marie) being attributed to the third-century BC woman chemist known as Mary the Jewess. Needless to say, because heating was difficult to control, apparatus broke frequently. Even in the eighteenth-century when Lavoisier found the need to distil water continuously for a period of months, his tests were continually frustrated by breakage. By the same token, since temperature conditions would have been hard to control and replicate, the repetition of processes under identical conditions was difficult or impossible.

Distillation, one of the most important procedures in practical chemistry, gave rise to a diversity of apparatus, all of which are the ancestors of today's oil refineries. Already in 3000 BC there is archaeological evidence of extraction pots being used in the Mesopotamian region. These pots were used by herbalists and perfume makers. A double-rim trough was percolated with holes, the trough itself being filled with perfume-making flowers and herbs in water. When fired, the steam condensed in the lid and percolated back onto the plants below. In a variation of this, no holes were drilled and the distillate was collected directly in the trough around the rim, from where it was probably removed from time to time by means of a dry cloth. In the Mongolian or Chinese still, the distillate fell from a concave roof into a central catch-bowl from which a side-tube led to the outside. Modern experiments, using working glass models of these stills, have shown that the preparation of strong spirituous liquor was, from a technological point of view, a rather simple matter and no civilization had a distillation apparatus which gave it an advantage.

Even so, although the Chinese probably had distilled alcohol from wine by the fourth century AD, it was several centuries later before it was known in the west. Even earlier, in the second century of our era, the Chinese had discovered how to concentrate alcohol by a freezing process, whereby separation was achieved by freezing water and leaving concentrated alcohol behind.

The observation of distillation also provided a solution to the theoretical problem of what made solid materials cohere. The binding material could not be Aristotelian water since this patently could not be extracted from a heated stone. Distillation of other materials showed, however, that an oily distillate commonly succeeded the aqueous fraction that first boiled off at a lower temperature. It could be argued, therefore, that an unctuous, or fatty, moisture was the cohesive binder of solid bodies. This notion that earths contained a fatty material was still to be found in Stahl's theory of phlogiston in the eighteenth century.

An improvement on distillation techniques was apparently first made by Alexandrian alchemists in the first AD - though, in the absence of recorded evidence, it is just as likely that these alchemists were merely adopting techniques and apparatus from craftsmen and pharmacists. This is particularly evident in the "kerotakis", which took its mane from the palette used by painters and artists, This wedge-shaped palette was fitted into an ambix (sill-head) as a shelf to contains a substance that was to be reacted with a boiling liquid, which would condense, drip or sublime onto it. These alchemists made air cooling in the distillation process more efficient by separating  the distillate off by a continuous process and raising the ambix well above the bikos or cucurbit vessel embedded in the furnace or sand bath. (In 1937 the world Ambix was adopted by the Society for the History of Achemy and Early Chemistry as the title of the journal that ever since has played an important role in the history of chemistry.) In the Latin west the word alembic (from the Arabic form of ambix, "al-anbiq") came to denote the complete distillation apparatus. By its means, rose water, other perfumes and, most importantly, mineral acids and alcohol began to be prepared and explored in the thirteenth century.

Continuous distillations were also made possible in the "pelican", so-called because of its arms, which bore resemblance to that bird's wings. Such distillations were believed to be significant by alchemists, who were much influenced by Jabir's reputed success at "projection" (the preparation of gold) after 700 distillations. The more efficient cooling of a distillate outside the still-head appears to have been a European contribution developed in the twelfth century. Alchemists and technologists referred to there as water-cooled stills or "serpents". This more efficient cooling of the distillate probably had something to do with the preparation of alcohol in the twelfth century, some centuries after the Chinese. This became an important solvent as well as a beverage in pharmacy. By then chemical apparatus were becoming commonly made of glass. It should be noted that, although "alcohol" is an Arabic word, it had first meant antimony sulphide, "kohl". In the Latin west, alcohol was initially called "aqua vitae" or "aqua ardens" (the water that burns), and only later had it been from the "quintessence", or from herbs and minerals, and thus to usher in the age of iatrochemistry in the sixteenth century. Here was the parting of the ways of alchemy and chemistry.

The sixteenth century saw great improvements in chemical technology and the appearance of several printed books dealing with the subject. Such treatises mentioned very little chemical theory. They aimed not to advance knowledge, but to record a technological complex that, in Multhauf's opinion, although sophisticated, had been virtually static throughout the Christian era. Generally speaking they discussed only apparatus and reagents and provided recipes that used distillation methods. Many recipes, especially those for artists' pigment and dyes, had an astonishing resemblance to those found in the aurifictive papyri of the third century, and therefore imply continuity in craftsmen's recipes for making imitation jewelry, textile dyeing, inks, paints and cheap, but impressive, chemical tricks.

One such book was the Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480-1538), which was published in Italy in 1540. This gave a detailed survey of contemporary metallurgy, the manufacture of weapons and the use of water power-driven machinery. For the first time there was an explicit stress upon the value of assaying as a guide to the scaling up of operations and the regular reporting of quantitative measurements in the various recipes. On alchemy he retained the traditional view that metals grew inside the earth, but he also provides a skeptical view based upon personal observation and experience:

"Now in having spoken and in speaking thus I have no thought of wishing to detract from or decrease the virtues of this art, if it has any, but I have only given my opinion, based on the facts of the matter. I could still discourse concerning the art of transmutation, or alchemy as it is called, yet neither through my own efforts nor those of others (although I have sought with great diligence) have I ever had the fortune to see any thing worthy of being approved by good men, or that it was not necessary to abandon as imperfect for one cause or another even before it was half finished. For this reason I surely deserve to be excused, all the more because I know that I am drawn by more powerful reasons, or , perhaps by natural inclination, to follow the path of mining more willingly than alchemy, even though mining is a harder task, both physical and mental, is more expensive, and promises less at first sight and in words than does alchemy; and it has as its scope the observation of Nature's powers rather than those of art - or indeed of seeing what really exists rather than what one thinks exists."

That is, succinctly put, by the sixteenth century, the natural ores of metals, and their separations and transformations by heat, acids and distillations, had become more interesting and financially fruitful than time spent fruitlessly on speculative transmutations.

Alchemy had been transmuted into chemistry, as the change of name reflected. Here a digression into the origins of the word "chemistry" seems appropriate. There is, in fact, no scholarly consensus over the origins of the Greek word "chemeia" or "chymia". One familiar suggestion has been a derivation of the Coptic word "Khem", meaning the black land (Egypt), and etymological transfer to the blackening process in dyeing, metallurgy and pharmacy. What is certain is that philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle had one word for chemistry, one for the term chymia, meaning to fuse or cast a metal, dates only from about 300 AD. A Chinese origin from the word "Kim-Iya", meaning "gold-making juice", has not been authenticated though Needham has plausibly suggested that the root "chem" may be equivalent to the Chinese "chin", as in the phrase for the art of transmutation, lien chin shu. The Cantonese pronunciation of this phrase would be, roughly, lin kem shut, i.e. with a hard "k" sound. Needham concludes that we have the possibility that the name for the Chinese "gold art", crystallized in the syllable chin (kiem) spread over the length and breadth of the Old World, evoking first the Greek terms for chemistry and then, indirectly the Arabic one.

Whatever the etymology, the Latin and English words alchemia, alchemy and chemistry were derived from the Arabic name of the art, "al Kiniya" or "alkymia". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Arabic definite article, "al", was dropped in the sixteenth century when scholars began to grasp the etymology of the Latin "alchimista", the chemist or practitioner; but it is far more likely to have followed Paracelsus' decision to refer to medical chemistry as "chymia" or "atrochemia". The word "chymia" was also used extensively by the humanist physician Georg Agricola (1494-1555), whose study of the German mining industry, De re metallica, was published in 1556. Although he used Latin coinages such as "chymista" and chymicus', it is clear from their context that he was still referring, however, to alchemy, alchemical techniques and alchemists, and that he was in the tradition of humanism, attempting to purify the spelling of a classical root that had been barbarized by Arabic contamination.

Agricola's simplifications were widely adopted, notably in the Latin dictionary compiled by the Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner (1516-65) in 1551, as well as in his De remediis secretis: liber phusicus, medicus et partim etiam chymicus (Zurich 1552). As Rocke has shown, the latter work on pharmaceutical chemistry was widely translated into English, French and Italian, and seems to have been the fountain for the words that became the basis of modern European vocabulary: chimique, chimico, chymiste, chimist, etc. Curiously, the German translation of Gesner continued to render "chymistae" as "Alchemisten". German texts only moved towards the form Chemie and Chemiker in the early 1600s.

Influenced by the practical textbook tradition instituted by Libavuis, as well as by the iatrochemistry of Paracelsis (The Skeptical Chemist), "alchymia" or "alchemy" were increasingly terms confined to esoteric religious practices, while "chymia" or chemistry were used to label the long tradition of pharmaceutical and technological empiricism.


When the economist John Maymard Keynes bought some of Newton's manuscripts in 1936 when Newton's papers were unfortunately dispersed, he drew attention to the non-mathematical, irrational side of Newton. Here was a famous scientist who had spent an equal part of his time, of not the major part, on a chronology of the scriptures, alchemy, occult medicine and biblical prophecies. For Keynes, Newton had been the last of the magicians. Historians have tended to ignore Newton's alchemical and religious interests, or simply deny that they had any thing to do with his work in mathematics, physics and astronomy. More recently, however, historians such as Robert Westfall and Betty Jo Dobbs, who have immersed themselves in the estimated one million words of Newton's surviving alchemical manuscripts, have seen his interest in alchemy as integral to his approach to the natural world. They view Newton as deeply influenced by the Neoplatonic and Hermetic movements of his day, which, for Newton, promised to open a window on the structure of matter and the hidden powers and energies of Nature that elsewhere he tried to express and explain in the language of corpuscles attractions and repulsions.

For example, the German scholar, Karin Figula, has been able to demonstrate that Newton was steeped on the work of Michael Sendivogius (1556-1636?), a Polish alchemist who worked at the Court of Emperor Rudolph II at Prague, where he successfully demonstrated an apparent transmutation in 1604. In his several writings, which were translated and circulated in Britain, Sendivogius wrote of a "secret food of life" that vivified all the creatures and minerals or the world:

"Man, like all other animals, dies when deprived of air, and nothing will grow in the world without the force and virtue of the air, which penetrated, alters and attracts to itself the multiplying nutriment."

As we shall see in the following readings, this Stoic and Neoplatinic concept of a universal animating spirit, or pneuma, which bathed the cosmos, was to stimulate some interesting experimental work on combustion and respiration in the 1670s.

In a spurious work of Paracelsus, Von den naturlichen Dingen, it had been predicted that a new Elijah would appear in Europe some sixty years after the master's death. A new age would be ushered in, in which God would finally reveal the secrets of Nature. This prophecy may explain why, as William Newman has suggested, early seventeenth-century Europe was peopled by several adepts like Sendivogius who claimed unusual powers and insights. Another, this time fictitious, adept was "Eirenaeus Philalethes", whose copious writings were closely read by Newton. It is possible that Newton developed his interest in alchemy while a student at Cambridge in the 1660s under the tutelage of Isaac Barrow who had an alchemical library. But it is equally likely that it was Robert Boyle's interest in alchemy and in the origins of colors that stimulated Newton's interest, as well as making him a convinced mechanical philosopher. Like Boyle, Newton's interest in alchemical reports of transmutations was providing circumstantial evidence for the corpuscular nature of matter. In addition, however, Newton was undoubtedly interested in alchemists' Neoplatonic claims of secret (or hidden) virtues in the air and of attractions between heavenly and earthly matter, and in the possibility, claimed by many alchemical authorities, that metals grew in the earth by the same laws of growth as vegetables and animals. In April 1669 Newton bought a furnace as well as a copy of the compilation of alchemical tracts, Theatrum Chemicum. Among his many other books purchases was the Secrets Reveal'd of the mysterious Eirenaeus Philalethes, whom we now know to have been one of Boyle's New England acquaintances. George Starkey. The book, which Newton heavily annotated, aimed to show that alchemy mirrored God's labors during the creation and it referred to the operations of the Stoics' animation spirit in Nature.

Starkey laid stress upon the properties of antimony whose ability to crystallize in the pattern of a star following the reduction of stibnite by iron had first been published by the fictitious monk, "Basil Valentine" in 1604 in The Triumphant Chariot of Antimony, one of the most important alchemical treatises ever published. Valentine, who was supposed to have lived in the early fifteenth century, was the invention of Johann Thode, a salt boiler from Thuringia. The Triumphant Chariot was concerned with the preparation of antimony elixirs to cute various ailments, including venereal disease. In Secrets Reveal'd, Starkey referred to crystalline antimony (child of Saturn from its resemblance to lead), a magnet on account of its pattern of rays emanating from, or towards, the center. Newton appears to have spent much of his time in the laboratory in the 1670s investigating the "magnetic" properties of the star, or signature of its unique ability to attract the world's celestial and vivifying spirit.

Very possibly it was Newton's interest in solving the impossibly difficult problem of how passive, inert corpuscles organized themselves into the living entities of the three kingdoms of Nature that drove him to explore the readily available printed texts and circulating manuscripts of alchemy, including, in particular the works of Sendicogius and Starkey. As Professor Dobbs has expressed it: "it was the secret of [the] spirit of life that Newton hoped to learn from alchemy". Newton's motive, which was probably shared by many other seventeenth-century figures, including Boyle, was quite respectable, Its purpose, ultimately, was theological. A deeper understanding of God could well come from an understanding of the "spirit", be it light, warmth, or a universal ether, which animated all things.


Historians of science are the first to stress that any theory, however erroneous in later periods, is better than none. Even so, many historians of science have expressed surprise that alchemy lasted so long, though we can easily underestimate the power of humankind's fear of death and desire for immortality - or of human stupidity. To the extent that it undoubtedly stimulated empirical research, alchemy can be said to have made a positive contribution to the development of chemistry and to the justification of applying scientific knowledge to the relief of human kind's estate. This is different, however, from saying that alchemy led to chemistry. The language of alchemy soon developed an arcane and secretive technical vocabulary designed to conceal information from the uninitiated. To a large degree this language is incomprehensible to us today, though it is apparent that the readers of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" or the audiences of Ben Jonson's "The Alchemist" were able to construe it sufficiently to laugh at it.

Warnings against alchemists' unscrupulousness, which are found in William Langland's Puers Plowman, were developed amusingly by Chaucer in the Canons Yemannes Tale (c. 1387) in which he exposed some half-dozen tricks used to delude the unwary. These included the use of crucibles containing gold in their base camouflaged by charcoal and wax; stirring a pot with a hallow charcoal rod containing gold concealed in a sleeve. Deception was made easier by the fact that only small quantities were needed to excite and delude an investor into parting with his/her money. These methods had hardly changed when Ben Jonson wrote his satirical masterpiece, The Alchemist, in 1610 except that by then the doctrine of multiplication - the claim that gold could be grown and expanded from a seed - had proved an extremely useful way of extracting gold coins from the avaricious.

As their expert use of alchemical language shows, both Chaucer and Jonson clearly knew a good deal about alchemy, as equally clearly did their readers and audiences. Chaucer had translated the thirteenth-century French allegorical romance, Roman de la Rose, which seems to have been influenced by alchemical doctrines, while Jonson based his character, Subtle, on the Elizabethan astrologer, Simon Forman, whose diary offers an extraordinary window into the mind of an early seventeenth-century occultist.

By Jonson's day, the adulteration and counterfeiting of metal had become illegal. As early as 1317, soon after Dante had placed all the alchemists into the Inferno, the Avignon Pope John XXII had ordered alchemists to leave France for coining false money, and a few years later the Dominicans threatened excommunication to any member of the Church who was caught practicing the art. Nor were the Jesuits friendly towards alchemy, though there is evidence that it was the spiritual esoteric alchemy that chiefly worried them. Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), for example, defended alchemical experiments, published recipes for chemical medicines and upheld claims for palingenesis (the revival of plants from their ashes), as well as running a "pharmaceutical" laboratory at the Jesuits' College in Rome. In 1403, the activities of "gold-makers" had evidently become sufficiently serious in England for a statute to be passed forbidding the multiplication of metals. The penalty was death and the confiscation of property. Legislation must have encouraged skepticism and the portrayal of the poverty-stricken alchemist as a self-deluded ass or as a knowing and crafty charlatan who scratched out a desperate existence by duping the innocent.

Legislation did not, however, mean that royalty and exchequers disbelieved in aurifaction; rather, they sought to control it to their own ends. In 1456 Henry VI of England set up a commission to investigate the secret of the philosopher's stone, but he learned nothing useful. In Europe, Emperors and Princes regularly offered their patronage - and prisons - to self-proclaimed successful projectionists. The most famous and colorful of these patrons, who included James IV of Scotland, was Rudolf II of Bohemia, who, in his castle in Prague, surrounded himself with a large circle of artists, alchemists and occultists. Among them were the Englishmen John Dee and Edmund Kelly and the Court Physician, Michael Maier (1568-1622), whose Atalanta fugiens (1618) is noted for its curious combination of allegorical woodcuts and musical settings of verses describing the alchemical process. It was Maier, too, who translated Thomas Norton's fascination poem, The Ordinall of Alchemy, into Latin verse in 1618.

Such courts, like Alexandria in the second century BC, became melting pots for a growing gulf between exoteric and the growing science of chemistry. Like Heinrich Khinrath (1560-1605), who beheld in his fantasy the whole cosmos as a work of Supernal Alchemy performed in the crucible of God, the German shoemaker Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) enshrined alchemical language and ideas into a theological system. By this time, too, alchemical symbolism had been further advanced by cults of the pansophists, that is by these groups who claimed that a complete understanding, or universal knowledge, could only be obtained through personal illumination. The Rosicrucian Order, founded in Germany at the beginning of the seventeenth century, would soon encourage the publication of a mutitude of emblematic texts, all of which became grist to the mill of esoteric alchemy.

Given that by the sixteenth century, if not before, artisans and natural philosophers had sufficient technical knowledge to invalidate the claims of transmutationists, it may be wondered why belief survived No doubt the divorce between the classes of educated natural philosophers and uneducated artisans (which Boyle tried to close) was partly responsible. There also the accidents and uncertainties caused by the use of impure and heterogeneous materials that must have often seemingly "augmented" working materials. As one historian has said, "fraudulent dexterity, false philosophy, public credulity and Royal rapacity" all played a part. To these very human factors, however, must be added the fact that, for seventeenth-century natural philosophers, the corpuscular philosophy to which they wee committed underwrote the concept of transmutation even more convincingly than the old four-elements theory they rejected.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the mechanical philosophy allowed, in principle, the transmutation of matter, by the mid eighteenth century it had become accepted by nearly all chemists and physicists that alchemy was a pseudo-science and that transmutation was technically impossible. Those few who claimed otherwise, such as James Price (1752-83), a Fellow of the Royal Society, who used his personal fortune in alchemical experiments, found themselves disgraced. Price committed suicide when challenged to repeat his transmutation claims before Sir Joseph Banks and other Fellows of the Society. By then, chemists had come to share Boerhaave's disbelief in alchemy as expressed in his New Methods of Chemistry (1724). Alchemy had become history, and they happily accepted Boerhaave's allegory of the dying farmer who had told his sons that he had buried treasure in the fields surrounding their home. The sons worked so energetically that they achieved prosperity even though they failed totally to find what they had originally sought.

The absorption of the experimental findings of exoteric alchemy by chemistry left esoteric alchemy to those who continued to believe that there "was more to Heaven and earth" than particles and forces. Incredible stories of transmutations continues to surface periodically during the eighteenth century. Indeed, legends concerning the "immortal" adventurer, the Comte de Saint-Germain, continue into the twentieth century. In Germany, in particular, the Masonic order of Gold- und Rosenkreuz, which was patronized by King Frederick William II of Prussia, combined a mystical form of Christianity with practical work in alchemy based upon the study of collections of alchemical manuscripts. All of this increasingly ran against the rationalism and enlightenment of the age, and we know that at least one member, the naturalist Georg Forster, left the movement a disillusioned man. Other alchemical echoes were to be heard in the speculative Narurphilosophie that swept through the German universities at the beginning of the nineteenth century and in the modified Paracelsianism of Samuel Hahnemann's homeopathic system, which he launched in 1810.

Modern alchemical esotericism dates from 1850 when Mary Ann South, whose father had encouraged her interest in the history of religions and in mysticism, published A Suggestive Enquiry into the Hermetic Mystery. This argued that alchemical literature provided the mystic religious contemplative with a direct link to the secret knowledge of ancient mystery religions. After selling only a hundred copies of the book, father and daughter burned the remaining copies, Later, after she had married the Rev. A. T. Atwood, she claimed that the bonfire had taken place to prevent the teachings from falling into the wrong hands. Whatever one makes of this curious affair, her insight that alchemists had been really searching for spiritual enlightenment and not a material stone, supported by the translation of various alchemical texts into English, proved influential on Carl Jung when, in old age, Mrs. Atwod republished her study in 1920. It also inspired Eugene Canseliet in France to devote his career to the symbolic interpretation of the statuary and frescoes of Christian churches and chateaux, as a result of the publication in 1928 of Le Mystere des Cathedrals by the mysterious adept "Fulcanelli". The ability of the human mind to read anything into symbols has been mercilessly exposed by Umberto Eco in his novel, Foucault's Pendulum (1988). In counterbalance, Patrick Harpur's Mercurius (1990) paints a vividly sympathetic portrait of the esoteric mind.

Ironically, the growth of nineteenth-century chemistry encouraged a revival of alchemical speculation. Dalton's reintroduction of atomism, the skepticism expressed towards the growing number of chemical elements, the discoveries of spectroscopists and the regularities of the periodic table all suggested the possibility of transmutation. Although the possibility was given respectability by Rutherford's and Soddy's work on radioactivity at the beginning of the twentieth century and physically realized on an atomic scale in the 1930s, it had earlier led in the 1860s to "hyperchemistry". We must not be surprised to find gold transmutation stories occurring during even the most positivistic periods of Victorian science. During the 1860s Chemical News attributed the high price of bismuth on the metal market to a vogue for transmutation experiments. This was connected to a daring swindle perpetrated in the London stock market by Hungarian refugee Nicholas Papaffy. Papffy duped large numbers of investors onto promoting a method for transforming bismuth and aluminum (then a new and expensive metal) into silver. This followed from a successful public demonstration at a bullion works in the classic tradition of Jonson's Subtle. Needless to say, after trading offices were opened on Leadenhall Street, Papaffy decamped with an advance of 40,000 from the company. Nor was the American government less gullible. In 1897 an Irish-American metallurgist, Stephen Emmens, sold gold ingots to the US Assay Office that he claimed to have made from silver by his "Argentaurum Process".

In France during the same period, hyperchemistry enjoyed the support of an Association Alchimique de France to which the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, subscribed, and which influenced Madame Blavatsky's scientific writings for the theosophists and inspired the English composer Scott (1879-1970) to compose the opera The Alchemist in 1925. The occult interest in alchemy has continued to the present day and has been given academia respectability since 1985 through the publication of the international scholarly review, Aries, a biannual devoted to the review of the history esotericism, Hermeticism, theosophy, freemasonry, the Kabbalah and alchemy. Today, booksellers catalogue alchemy inder "Occultism" and not "History of Science", which Ambix, the academica mouthpiece of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry (founded 1937) continues to receive occultist literature for review, as well as the occasional letter pressing its editor for "the secrets of secrets".

In 1980, at the phenomenal cost of $10,000, a bismuth sample was transmuted into one-billionth of a cent's worth of gold by means of a particle accelerator at the Lawrence Laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley. The value of the experiment is underlined in the Frederick Soddy's ironic remark some sixty years before:

"If man ever achiever this further control over Nature, it is quite certain that the last thing he would want to do would be to turn lead or mercury onto gold - for the sake of gold. The energy that would be liberated, if the control of these subatomic process were possible as in the control of ordinary chemical changes, such as combustion, would far exceed in importance and value the gold."


Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu pictureLao-Tzu (Old Master) is the semi-mythical figure from ancient China who is attributed with the writing of the Tao-Te Ching (The Book of the Way and Its Power). Although some feel the Lao-Tzu was an individual, others believe that the name Lao-Tzu represents a group of people and ideas. The Tao-Te Ching is estimated to be 2500 years old.

One typical myth of Lao-Tzu and the writing of the Tao-Te Ching has Lao-Tzu traveling out of his kingdom where he worked as the Keeper of the Imperial Archives. He is leaving the kingdom because of vast and impending political instability. As he comes upon the last gate house of the kingdom, the gatekeeper asks him to leave some record of the wisdom he has accumulated. Lao-Tzu agrees and writes the Tao-Te Ching.

One important element of Lao-Tzu's philosophy is the inability to accurately transmit the true meaning of his (or any) wisdom (or truth):

     "The Tao that can be told of, is not the Absolute Tao; The Names that can be given, are not Absolute Names."



Plato picturePlato seems as a young man to have been set on a political career. The excesses of Athenian political life seem to have persuaded him to give up political ambitions. In particular, the execution of Socrates in 399 BC had a profound effect on him.

Plato left Athens after his master, Socrates, had been executed and traveled in Egypt, Sicily and Italy. In Egypt he learnt of a water clock and introduced it into Greece. In Italy he learned of the work of Pythagoras and came to appreciate the value of mathematics. On his return to Athens he founded, on land which had belonged to Academos, a school of learning which was called the Academy.

Plato presided over his Academy in Athens, an institution devoted to research and instruction in philosophy and the sciences, from 387 BC until his death.

All important mathematical work of the 4th century BC was done by friends and pupils of Plato. Although he made no important mathematical discoveries himself, his belief that mathematics provides the finest training for the mind was extremely important in the development of the subject.

Over the door of the Academy was written:

Let no one unversed in geometry enter here.

Plato concentrated on the idea of 'proof' and insisted on accurate definitions and clear hypotheses. This laid the foundations for Euclid's systematic approach to mathematics.

His beliefs as regards to the universe were that the stars, planets, Sun and Moon move round the Earth in crystalline spheres. The sphere of the Moon was closest to the Earth, then the sphere of the Sun, then Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and furthest away was the sphere of the stars. He believed that the Moon shines by reflected sunlight.

Plato's Academy flourished until 529 AD when it was closed down by the Christian Emperor Justinian who claimed it was a pagan establishment.



Aristotle pictureAristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived between 384-322 B.C. He was one of the greatest thinkers of the world and wrote on every major area of thought. Aristotle mistakenly believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe and made up of only four substances: earth, water, air, and fire. He also thought that heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon, and stars, were perfect and made of a fifth element called ether.


Alchemists Throughout Time

1200-1280 Albertus Magnus
1200-1271 Hortulanus
1201-1259 Bartholomaeus Anglicus
1219-1295 Roger Bacon
1223-1273 Thomas Aquinas
1235-1310 Arnold of Villanova
1236-1319 Ramon Lull
1288-1339 John Dastin

1309-1348 Petrus Bonus
1338-1400 Geoffery Chaucer
1329-1419 Nicolas Flamel (supposed)
1379-1439 Isaac Holland
1385-1441 Georges Aurach

1402-1442 Bernard of Treviso
1412-1480 Lacinius
1435-1512 Marsilio Ficino
1452-1520 Johannes Reuchlin
1445-1538 Augurello
1465-1518 Trithemius of Sponheim
1462-1492 Pico della Mirandola
1468-1540 Francesco Giorgi
1485-1535 Henry Cornelius Agrippa
1492-1555 Georg Agricola

1525-1580 Thomas Charnock
1527-1603 John Dee
1528-1578 Adam von Bodenstein
1532-1595 Thurneisser zum Thurn
1531-1588 Valentin Weigel
1535-1613 Giambattista della Porta
1541-1616 Andreas Libavius
1540-1601 Petrus Severinus
1545-1608 Joseph Duchesne (Quercetanus)
1548-1600 Giordano Bruno
1555-1625 Francis Anthony
1559-1598 Edward Kelley
1560-1605 Heinrich Khunrath
1563-1628 Francis Bacon
1565-1622 Michael Maier
1565-1648 Michael Sendivogius
1565-1628 Robert Fludd
1575-1625 Jacob Boehme
1578-1645 Johannes Battista van Helmont
1579-1651 Arthur Dee
1580-1610 Oswald Croll
1583-1628 Johan Daniel Mylius
1584-1653 Johann Valentin Andreae

1600-1679 Barend Coenders van Helpen
1600-1680 Athanasius Kircher
1600-1665 Sir Kenelm Digby
1602-1668 Rudolf Glauber
1603-1678 John Junior Winthrop
1613-1652 Nicholas Culpepper
1618-1691 Elias Ashmole
1618-1698 Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont
1620-1665 Thomas Vaughan
1624-1701 Helvetius
1628-1692 Robert Boyle
1628-1666 George Starkey
1633-1690 Knorr von Rosenroth
1640-1728 Isaac Newton
1665-1723 Johann Conrad Barchusen


Events of The Alchemists

1144 -Earliest dated Western alchemical treatise - Robert of Chester De compositione alchemiae

1148 -Hildegard of Bingen writing on science

1150 -Turba philosophorum translated from Arabic

1225 -Michael Scot Liber introductorius, Liber particularis

1230 -Bartholomew Anglicus De rerum proprietatibus

1231 -First mention of alchemy in French literature - Roman de la Rose

1235 -Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, discusses transmutation of metals in De artibus liberalibus and De generatione stellarum

1240 -The Dominican Thomas of Cantimpre mentions alchemy in his Liber de natura rerum

1250 -Vincent de Beauvais Speculum Maius (this encyclopaedia mentions alchemy in many places)

1256 -King Alfonso the Wise of Castile orders translation of alchemical texts from Arabic. He is supposed to have written Tesoro a treatise on the Philosophers' stone

1257 -Franciscan friar Bonadventura d'Iseo's 'Liber Compostella' provides some alchemical recipes

1264 -Albertus Magnus, Bishop of Regensburg, writes De mineralibus

1266 -Roger Bacon Opus maius

1267 -Roger Bacon Opus tertium

1270 -Thomas Aquinas is sympathetic to the idea of alchemical transmution in his Summa theologia

1272 -Provincal Chapter at Narbonne forbade the Franciscans to practice alchemy

1273 -Dominican order at Pest warned friars not to study or teach alchemy

1275 -Ramon Lull Ars Magna. Aurora consurgens possibly written by Thomas Aquinas

1300 -Arnald of Villanova writes a number of important treatises on alchemy Quaestiones tam esseentiales quam accidentales, Epistola supe alchemia ad regem Neapolitanum, De secretis naturae, Exempla de arte philosophorum

1310 -Dante begins work on his Divine Comedy

1313 -Friars Minors' Constitution generales antique forbade the friars to practice alchemy

1314 -Destruction of the Knights Templar

1317 -Pope John XXII's Papal Bull against alchemical counterfeit Spondet quas non exhibent. Cistercians ban alchemy.

1318 -The monk Adolf Meutha driven from the Cistercian Monastery at Walkenried for practicing alchemy

1320 -John Dastin, the alchemist, writes his alchemical letters to Pope John XXII

1323 -Dominicans in France prohibit the teaching of alchemy at the University of Paris, and demand the burning of alchemical writings

1329 -King Edward III requests Thomas Cary to find two alchemists who have escaped, and to find the secret of their art

1330 -Pope John XXII gives funds to his physician to set up a laboratory for a "certain secret work"

1335 -Petrus Bonus of Ferrara Pretiosa margarita novella

1339 -Pope Benedict XII orders an investigation into the alchemical activities of some clerics and monks

1356 -Pope Innocent VI imprisons the Catalan alchemist John of Rupescissa

1357 -Hortulanus' commentary on the Emerald Tablet of Hermes

1358 -Francesco Petrarch discussed alchemy in De remediis utriusque fortunae

1370 -William Langland's Piers Plowman criticizes alchemists as deceivers.

1374 -John of Livania, Canon in Trier, writes three books on the vanity of alchemy.

1376 -The Dominican Directorium inquisitorum, the textbook for inquisitors, places alchemists among magicians and wizards.

1380 -King Charles V the Wise issues a decree forbidding alchemical experiments

1388 -Geoffrey Chaucer Canterbury Tales discussed alchemy in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale

1403 -King Henry IV of England issues a prohibition of alchemy and to stop counterfeit money

1415 -Early German MS Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit paralleling the Christ and the Philosophers' stone

1420 -Splendor solis manuscript

1450 -Beginning of printing. Cosimo de Medici asks Marsilio Ficine to set up the Platonic academy in Florence

1456 -12 men petition Henry VI of England for a license to practice alchemy

1470 -Der Antichrist und die funfzehn Zeichnen (the book of the antichrist) associates alchemists with demons and Satan

1471 -George Ripley Compound of alchemy. Ficino's translation of the Corpus Hermeticum

1476 -George Ripley Medulla alchemiae

1477 -Thomas Norton writes his Ordinall

1484 -Avicenna's De anima. Hieronymous Bosch Garden of earthly delights

1485 -Geber Summa perfectionis

1488 -The figure of Hermes Trismegistus is put into the mosaic pavement in Sienna Cathedral

1494 -Sebastian Brandt T he ship of fools discussed methods used by cheating alchemists

1497 -Tractatus contra alchymistas written by a Dominican questions the genuineness of alchemical gold

1499 -Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

1519 -Braunschweig's Das Buch zu distillieren

1530 -Georgius Agricola Bermannus, book on mining and extraction of ores

1531 -Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy

1532 -Earliest manuscript of the Splendor solis

1540 -Vannoccio Biringuccio De la Pirotecnia

1541 -In hoc volumine alchemia first alchemical compendium

1546 -Petrus Bonus' Pretiosa margarita novella of 1335 printed

1550 -Rosarium Philosophorum published

1555 -First edition of Alessio Piemontese Secreti

1556 -Georgius Agricola De re metallica

1560 -Adam von Bodenstein begins his work of editing various writings of Paracelsus. Giambattista della Porta Magia naturalis

1561 -Peter Perna prints the compendium of 53 alchemical treatises, Verae alchemiae artisque metallicae

1564 -Nazari's Il metamorfosi metallico et humano. John Dee's Hieroglyphic Monad

1572 -Peter Perna prints the compendium Alchemiae quam vocant

1574 -Peter Perna prints the collected works of Paracelsus in Latin.

1580 -Rabbi Loew of Prague makes the Golem

1582 -Reusner Pandora

1589 -Edward Kelley embarkes on his public alchemical transmutations in Prague

1591 -Reprinting of John Dee's Hieroglyphic Mona

1595 -Libavius Alchymia

1599 -First appearance of a work of Basil Valentine. Book of Lambspring included in Barnaud's Triga Chemica

1600 -Giordano Bruno executed

1602 -Publication of the first volumes of the compendium of alchemical texts Theatrum Chemicum

1604 -Basil Valentine's Triumphal Chariot of Alchemy. Simon Studion's Naometria ms. Novum lumen chemicum

1609 -Main edition of Khunrath's Amphitheatrum sapientae aeternae. Oswald Croll Basilica chemica

1610 -Jean Beguin Tyrocinium chymicum

1611 -Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist

1612 -Flamel figures hierogliphiques (first publication). Ruland's Lexicon alchemiae. Jacob Boehme Aurora

1614 -Fama fraternitatis. Isaac Casaubon re-dates the works of Hermes Trismegistus

1615 -Confessio fraternitatis Steffan Michelspacher Cabala, Spiegel der Kunst unnd Natur

1616 -Chymische Hochzeit

1617 -First volume of Fludd's Utriusque Cosmi historia

1618 -Theophilus Schweighardt Speculum sophicum rhodo-stauroticum. Maier's Atalanta fugiens

1619 -Siebmacher's Waterstone of the Wise

1623 -Jean d'Espagnet Enchiridion physicae restitutae

1624 -Stolcius's Viridarium chymicum

1625 -Musaeum hermeticum

1629 -Fludd's Summum bonum

1631 -Arthur Dee Fasciculus chemicus in Latin

1640 -Albaro Alonso Barba Art of metals

1650 -Arthur Dee Fasciculus chemicus issued in English

1651 -John French The Art of Distillation

1652 -Ashmole Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum. English translation of Fama and Confessio edited by Thomas Vaughan.

1654 -Pierre Borel Bibliotheca chimica

1666 -Helvetius' account of the transmutation in the Hague. Crassellame Lux obnubilata

1667 -Eirenaeus Philalethes An open entrance to the closed palace of the King

1672 -Bibliotheque des philosophes chimiques

1673 -William Cooper begins to publish works on alchemy especially those of Eirenaeus Philalethes

1674 -Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbala Denudata

1677 -Mutus Liber

1682 -Gichtel's edition of the collected works of Boehme

1690 -Publication of the English translation of the Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.

1702 -Manget Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa (alchemical compendium)

1710 -Samuel Richter begins to form the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross

1719 -Georg von Welling Opus mago-cabalisticum (first edition)

1723 -Kirchweger's Golden Chain of Homer

1728 -Friedrich Roth-Scholtz Deutsches theatrum chemicum

1735 -Abraham Eleazar Uraltes chymisches Werck

1752 -Hermaphroditisches Sonn- und Monds-Kind

1758 -Dom Pernety Dictionnaire Mytho-Hermetique

1776 -Adam Weishaupt forms the Order of Illuminati of Bavaria

1779 -Birkholz, Der Compass der Weisen

1783 -James Price commits suicide after performing some alchemical experiments

1785 -Geheime Figuren The Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians

1802 -Karl von Eckartshausen Chemische Versuche


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WebQuest originally developed by Juan D. Sanchez at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco, California, USA and adopted as appropriate by Michael Russell at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon, USA