(Investigator 67, 1999 July)

Alchemy, in the popular sense of the word, concerns attempts to transform base metals into silver or gold. All such attempts have involved purely chemical procedures and for many centuries the history of alchemy was the history of chemistry. Its origins, at least in the Western world, can be traced to 3rd or 4th century writings at the time of the Hellenistic culture of Alexandria in Egypt where Greek philosophy, Egyptian technology and the mysticism of eastern religions met in that centre of learning.

The idea of the existence of a prime matter which was the basis for terrestrial substances, originated with Aristotle, who believed that if the ephemeral qualities – colour, shape, size, weight etc. could be stripped from the irreducible prime matter, then this could be added to the other qualities needed to make it into gold. This elusive prime matter became known as the Philosopher's Stone.

The skilful artisans of Egypt, adept in working with metals and versed in Aristotelian theories, knew of no reason why they could not manufacture precious metals. 

They were supported in this view by Mesopotamian astrologers, who believed that, under the proper astrological influences, a change of lead to gold might easily occur as events in the macrocosmic world of stars was reflected in the small world of man.

While alchemy started as a series of chemical experiments, the religious and astrological influences caused a split into the practical and mystical divisions which have existed throughout most of its history. 

Among those whose names are recorded as being successful in the quest for the magic stone was Paracelsus, the famous 16th century doctor and theorist who, it is alleged, added some grains of the Philosopher's Stone to a pound of Mercury heated in a crucible, which changed it into gold and which he then sold to a goldsmith.

In England in 1782, James Price, a chemist and a Fellow of the Royal Society, mixed a white powder with mercury, borax and nitre, heated them in a crucible while stirring with an iron rod and produced an ingot of genuine silver. He repeated the operation using a red powder and the result was gold. 

Medals and coins have been struck to commemorate supposedly successful transmutations, among them one by Baron Pfenninger, in 1609, and another by alchemist Wenceslaus von Reinburg in 1677, for Emperor Leopold I. 

Alchemy can readily be dismissed as a pseudoscience as it is erroneously based on the belief that gold can be made from other metals. In respect of the chemical aspects of the claim I doubt whether anyone would care to argue against the fact. However, while alchemy was the forerunner of chemistry, its most important and interesting aim was the spiritual transformation of the alchemist himself, in which he strove towards the redemption of his soul from earthly bondage. This brought him into conflict with the conventions of the Church and led to the recording of alchemical operations being couched in a mixture of obscure language and symbolism. As this essay is primarily concerned with the practicalities of transmuting metals, the philosophical aspects of alchemy will be left at that. 

Metallurgy came into being when man discovered that by applying heat to certain kinds of rock it changed its nature into dross and metal. Next came the mixing of two metals to form alloys with different characteristics and the purifying of metals with vegetable juices or fire. It was only natural then, in the hope that great wealth could be simply manufactured by amalgamating cheap and readily available metals, that some turned their minds to finding a way of transforming base metals into gold. 

The first alchemists were the metallurgical workers who prepared gold and silver for wealthy patrons and manufactured cheaper substitutes for the poorer. While they recognized that the substitutes were inferior the7y attempted to make them resemble gold and silver as best they could. 

When called upon to prove their claims of successful transformations those tested have failed. James Price for example, was called upon by the Royal Society to repeat the experiment in front of observers chosen by the Society. Price agreed, then committed suicide by drinking Prussic acid in front of them. It was later assumed that he had introduced the silver and gold into the crucible through a hollow stirring rod.

It would be reasonable to assume that successful alchemists would have become wealthy men, but this does not seem to be the case. One of the greatest alchemists, Paracelsus, made his will on September 24, 1541, making no mention of gold and silver. His only legacy was a 4 oz silver chalice.


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[From: A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, Harry Edwards]

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