There are many ways to examine the subject of alchemy, including alchemy as a source of symbolism, psychology, and mysticism. It has also been an influence on the world view of various writers, artist, and musicians. The focus of this report is alchemy as a pre-chemistry, which gave a new impulse towards the preparation of medicinal remedies and also was a major influence on today’s scientific investigations.
Alchemy is an ancient art, practiced in the Middle Ages. The fundamental concept of alchemy stemmed from Aristotle’s doctrine that all things tend to reach perfection. Because other metals were thought to be less perfect than gold, it was reasonable to believe that nature created gold out of other metals found deep within the earth and that a skilled artisan could duplicate this process. It was said that once someone was able to change, or transmute a base chemical into the perfect metal, gold, they would have achieved eternal life and salvation. In this way, alchemy turned into not only a scientific quest, but a spiritual quest as well. Although the purposes and techniques were often times ritualistic and fanciful, alchemy was in many ways the predecessor of modern science, especially the science of chemistry.
The birthplace of alchemy was ancient Egypt, where, in Alexandria, it began to flourish during the Hellenistic period. Also at that time, a school of alchemy was developing in China. The writings of some Greek philosophers may be considered to be among the very first chemical theories, such as the theory that all things are composed of air, earth, fire, and water. Each of these were represented by different elements, such as sulfur, salt, mercury, and, ideally, gold. Other ideas held by alchemists were that each of the known elements were represented by heavenly bodies. Gold was earth’s representation of the sun, silver for the moon, mercury for the planet Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for Mars, tin for Jupiter, and lead for Saturn.
The typical alchemist’s laboratory in Renaissance Europe was a dark, cluttered place that stank of smoke and mysterious chemicals. Many alchemists worked at home, in order to save money and avoid outside interference. Some settled in the kitchen, to take advantage of the cooking fire. Others chose the attic or cellar, where late-night activity was less likely to be noticed by inquisitive neighbors. These small, makeshift laboratories were often filled with a grimy jumble of instruments, manuscripts, skulls, animal specimens, and assorted mystical objects. Most alchemists also had an alter in their lab, which was a aid they deemed necessary to the spiritual aspects of their pursuit- eternal life and unimaginable power. In these surroundings that owed more to mysticism than to science, attempts to discover the magical substance that would turn base metals into gold inadvertently laid much of the groundwork for the later discipline of applied chemistry. Alchemists were the first to isolate a number of chemicals, from phosphorus to hydrochloric acid, and they also developed new equipment and methods for distilling fluids, assaying metals, and controlling chemical reactions.
One method the alchemist helped to develop was the use of heat to start reactions. Thomas Norton, a fifteenth century alchemist wrote A perfect Master ye may call him true, that knoweth his Heates both high and lowe. The alchemist experimented with a number of furnaces, water baths, and other heating apparatus. They also refined the process of distillation and created many flasks and stills.
As the world approached the late 18th century, people grew skeptical of alchemy’s mystical and astrological attempts at turning common metals into gold. The alchemists of Europe then divided into two separate groups. One group took up the visionary, metaphysical side of the older alchemy and developed it into a practice based on imposture, necromancy, and fraud, which is the prevailing notion of alchemy today. The other group, however, devoted themselves to the scientific discovery of new compounds and reactions. These few scientists were the legitimate ancestors of modern chemistry.