Alchemy, in the popular sense of the word, concerns
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
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
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
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
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
Burland, C.A. 1967. The Arts of the Alchemists. Weidenfeld.
Cavendish (Ed.) 1970. Man Myth and Magic. BPC Publishing Ltd.
Cockren, A. 1940. Alchemy Rediscovered and Restored. Rider.
Cohen, D. 1982. Real Magic, Dodd, Mead and Co. NY.
Edwardes, M. 1980. The Dark Side of History. Corgi Books.
Eliade, M. 1962. The Forge and the Crucible. Rider.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1992. Vol. 1. p 226a.
Hill, Douglas & William, Pat. 1989. The Supernatural,
Blomsbury Books, London.
Holmyard, E.J. Alchemy. Penguin.
McKay, C. 1932. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of
Crowds. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. NY.
Read, J. 1936. Prelude to Chemistry. G. Bell & Sons.
Taylor, F.S. 1976. The Alchemists. St. Albans Paperbacks. UK.
[From: A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, Harry Edwards]