Alchemy in History

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 38, 1994 September)


A number of shops I frequently visit carry a range of books on alchemy, some of which appear to claim that it is possible to accomplish a transmutation of the elements using this method, and it is for this reason that I have chosen to write an article on the subject.

I shall proceed to give a brief history of alchemy, followed by a description of its theory and practice. This shall then be compared to our modern theories of matter, followed by a discussion on why some alchemists may have thought a successful transmutation had been achieved, and how frauds may have been perpetrated. As the reader progresses, it should become evident as to whether alchemy works or not.


The word alchemy is derived from the Arabic alkimia, in which al is the definite article, and kima is thought to be derived from either the Greek, chyma, meaning to fuse or cast a metal, or from khem, "the dark land", the ancient Egyptians' name for their country.

The origins of alchemy can be traced to Greece's Hellenistic period from 300 BC to 300 AD, and is thought to have been centred around the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which was the cultural capital of the time.

Alchemy diffused into the Muslim Empire with the fall of Alexandria to the Arabs in the 7th century AD, and then into Europe in the 13th century AD via Toledo and Sicily, which at the time were Muslim centres of learning.

Alchemy flourished vigorously in Europe up until establishment of modern chemistry, which was spearheaded by such men as Joseph Priestley (1773-1804) and Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794).

What is alchemy?

Alchemy is similar to the legendary Chimaera in that it is a composite creature which resulted from the union of Egyptian metal working techniques with Greek philosophy. From this melting pot of ideas emerged a philosophical system in which laboratory experiments were performed in an attempt to prove the veracity of spiritual concepts on a material plane.

According to alchemy, both animate and inanimate matter were unified through the possession of a permanent 'soul' housed in a variety of temporary bodies, and that chemical change could be shown in terms of human change, that a union of two substance was like a human marriage, and that the turning of base metals into gold was mystically linked by imitative magic to the transformation of the adept's nature into a nobler state. The successful production of gold was considered to be a sign that the practitioner had achieved enlightenment.

Alchemy's theory of matter is based upon Aristotle's (384 - 322 BC) theory of the two pairs of opposed qualities (hot/cold. dry/wet) and the four elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) produced by pairwise conjunction of the four qualities.

These elements could interchange their qualities to produce others, as for instance: Water (cold wet) + Fire (hot dry) = Earth (cold dry) + Air (hot wet).

The essence of the four elements was thought to be the Materia Prima, the ‘soul’ of the matter, which existed only potentially until given form, thus producing the elements. According to Aristotle, all matter was composed of these elements in varying proportions, and it was the ratio of these proportions which produced the multitude of substances that comprise the material world.

The Philosopher's Stone

It was from these philosophical assumptions that the alchemists deduced their own postulates about the unity of both the material and spiritual world, and the existence of a transmuting agent called the Philosopher's Stone which,  if produced,  could transform base metals into gold, and act as a panacea when dissolved in alcohol.

There was much confusion as to how the Philosopher's Stone was to be produced, and the following description is a generalised account of the process. The first step in the production of the Philosopher's Stone was to place a substance (ie excrement, semen, thaumaturgic herbs) in a thick walled hermetic flask. When the planets were in conjunction in the appropriate zodiacal signs and the invocations uttered, the flask was slowly heated in the furnace and the substance was though to separate into the four elements: Earth (the residue in the bottom of the flask), Water (condensation in the flask's long neck), and Fire (the ignition of material within the flask).

The second stage in the process was called the Nigredo. At this stage, the substance had been reduced to a black inert mass under the vapours that had been driven off. These vapours were allowed to condense and return to the black mass in the belief that the spiritual essence of the material (vapours) that had been driven off from the charred body (inert mass) would give birth to nobler substance when reunited with it (analogous with Christ's resurrection).

This second stage was repeated many times until it gave birth to the Phoenix, the third stage, so called because the black mass was said to burst into expanding feathers of white fire. These flames became red, then golden, then erupted into a coruscation of colour, the Peacock's Tail, the fourth and final stage of the process. The explosion of light faded and left behind a red powder, the Philosopher's Stone, which, when dissolved in molten metal would transmute it entirely to gold.

The science of matter

After having given an account of alchemical theory and Practice, I shall now seek to answer the following question: does alchemy work? The answer is no, the transmutation of the elements cannot be achieved by alchemical methods, and in order to understand why, we will need to examine the true nature of matter which has been elucidated by modern science.

All matter is composed of atoms, which in turn consist of a nucleus of protons and neutrons. The number of protons in the nucleus determines the nature of the element; for example, mercury has 80 protons while gold has 79.

The nucleus is surrounded by electrons whose number is equal to the number of protons; since the electric charge of the electron is equal but opposite to that of the proton, the atom is electrically neutral. The electrons orbiting the nucleus are arranged in shells, and it is the number and arrangement of electrons in the outermost shell that determine how an element behaves chemically.

Chemical reactions occur when the electrons in the outermost shell of the atoms involved are shared or transferred so that their total number is eight, that being the most stable arrangement. Any atom that already possesses eight electrons in its outermost shell cannot take part in chemical reactions, as it the case with argon and neon which are inert gases.

The alchemist's experiments were of a chemical nature, and no chemical reaction can alter the nucleus of an atom. The number of protons in the nucleus must be changed in order to effect a transmutation. This occurs in nature with the radioactive decay of elements such as radium which eventually decays to lead. Radioactive decay occurs because the number of neutrons in the nucleus is appreciably different from the number of protons.

This nuclear instability results in three distinct phenomena: the emission of alpha rays (2 protons and 2 neutrons), beta rays (electrons) and gamma rays (high frequency electromagnetic radiation). Each of these events tends to increase the stability of the atom by altering the proton-neutron ratio to a more equal proportion, or by the release of nuclear strain through the emission of radiant energy.

Modern transmutation

The first artificial transmutation was performed by New Zealand born Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) who bombarded nitrogen with alpha particles to produce oxygen and protons. Armed with nothing more than crucibles, alembics and other primitive laboratory equipment, the alchemists, with their erroneous theories of matter, stood no chance of changing one element into another. Not only did alchemy fail to transform the elements, it also failed to ennoble its practitioners.

Charlatanism was rife in the period 1400 to 1600 and did not always go unpunished. Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) imprisoned and tortured the English alchemist Edward Kelly for falsely claiming to be able to achieve transmutations.

 It is possible that some alchemists sincerely believed that they had achieved a successful transmutation. In many cases, they may have succeeded in giving some other metal a golden colour, and concluded that they had made gold. Alchemical manufacture of silver has been explained by reference to arsenic compounds like orpiment and realgar (arsenic sulphides) which, together with copper, form 'silvery' alloys. Alchemical gold may have resulted from a combination of calamine (zinc carbonate) and copper which would produce a brass alloy.


However, there were cases where alchemical gold was tested and found to be genuine. In these instances, fraud is the most likely explanation.

How might the deception have been achieved? One possibility is that powdered gold was introduced into the crucible via a hollow stirring rod, or the crucible may have had a thick layer of gold lining its bottom, and concealed by paint. Alternatively, an ingot of lead dropped into the crucible may have been a mere shell which encased a solid mass of gold, and in cases where a sceptical observer provided a sample, the alchemist may have made a substitution using techniques similar to those employed by magicians.


In conclusion, I think it can be said that although alchemy made contributions to chemistry in the area of laboratory techniques, such as distillation, its esoteric and magical theories have no place in the modem world, except as signposts to human folly.

 In today's world, anyone who suggests that an alchemical transformation of the elements is possible is either woefully ignorant of some very basic science or no better than the charlatans of old.


Atimov, L, Asirnov's New Guide to Science, Penguin Books, London, 1987

Bernal, J.D. Science in history, Vol 1: The Emergence of Modern Science. Penguin Books, England, 1969

Boas, M. The Arts of the Alchemists, Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd, London, 1967

Crombie, A.C., Augustine to Galileo, Vol 1: Science in the Middle Ages, Mercury Books, London, 1964

Lapp, R.E., Matter, Time-Life International, Holland, 1965

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