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Alchemy | Early Science of Precious Metals

precious metals portrait the alchemist
“The Alchemist” by Sir William Fettes Douglas, 1853.

For over 1,500 years, man has searched for a means to transmute base metals  such as sulfur and mercury into gold. Alchemy is the study and practice of this pursuit.

 

alchemist Paracelsus
Presumed portrait of Paracelsus, 16th century doctor, alchemist, and father of the modern sciences of chemistry and toxicology.

While the common caricature of alchemists pictures them as sorcerers and wizards, they were, in fact, our earliest doctors and scientists – men who sought to utilize the laws of nature, who invented chemical apparatuses, and who perfected the techniques of distillation and sublimation. Although alchemical “laws” seem strange today, they reflect the scientific thinking of the time.

 

Most men of the pre-scientific period supposed that minerals, including gems, matured in the ground, gradually becoming something more and more precious.  Over time, soil was thought to change into lead, lead to silver, and silver into gold.  It was not considered unreasonable to search for the means to recreate this natural process in the laboratory with the aid of key tools like the philosopher’s stone.   

alchemist lab equipment
Early alchemists created an arsenal of tools to aid them in their investigations. Modern versions of many of these tools are used in laboratories today.

 

Many ancient alchemical recipes are devoted to the “doubling” of gold.  In these recipes, a quantity of gold is mixed with copper and silver or some other metallic ingredients.  The result, to the alchemist, was the creation of more gold.  Today, the “doubling” process has evolved into a closely regulated system for alloying gold, and it is a standard procedure used in modern jewelry making.

melting gold alchemist
Ancient alchemists believed that base metals could be changed into gold through the use of fire.

 

To test their newly doubled gold, ancient alchemists used two common procedures: the touchstone test and the test by fire.  In the touchstone test, gold was rubbed on a hard black stone and its quality was determined by evaluating the yellow streak produced.  

 

If doubt remained, gold could also be tested by fire.  Pure gold, however long it is heated, remains unchanged.  This test could identify gold alloys made predominantly of base metal.  Both of these tests are still used today to determine the fineness of precious metal alloys.

alchemist drawing
“An Alchemist” by Hans Weiditz, 1520.

 

Unfortunately, ancient practitioners of alchemy developed a bad reputation, as the pursuit was very attractive to conmen, charlatans, and tricksters.  

 

Becher alchemist of precious metals
A drawing of Johann Joachim Becher, a man who conned the Dutch government.

One example of a blatant con took place in the 1670s, when the Dutch government, desperately in need of funds, employed a shady gentleman named Johann Joachim Becher, a man who claimed he could change sand into gold.  The Dutch government gave Becher just enough money to construct a water wheel and furnace for a small-scale trial run–which was apparently conducted with some success in front of a single witness.  After the Dutch awarded Becher a considerable sum of money to develop his process on a grandiose scale, he disappeared.  

Edward Kelley alchemist
An 18th century engraving of alchemist Edward Kelley.

 

We know that alchemists were successful in passing off their “gold” to the unsuspecting public, because both the Roman emperor Diocletian (3rd century A.D.) and Pope John XXII (14th century A.D.) explicitly outlawed the practice.  Although separated by centuries, they both feared that the artificial manufacture of gold would undermine official currency.  

 

Hennig Brand discovering phosphorous
German chemist, Hennig Brand, discovered phosphorous and became the first known discoverer of an element.

Perhaps another reason for alchemy’s less than stellar reputation is the fact that most texts on the subject were dubiously attributed to a few well-known, often long-deceased or mythical authors who wrote in coded language.  This made the attribution of ideas and duplication of recipes and experiments impossible—key flaws from a scientific perspective.  

 

Alchemy flourished in all ancient centers of civilization and learning, including Egypt, Greece, Italy, China, India, Persia, Syria, and Russia.  Today the ancient tradition has fallen into disuse, although it is still practiced in secret in some parts of Asia, notably Myanmar.  

 

But perhaps ancient alchemists are having the last laugh after all.  Physicists have proved that it is possible to create gold from lead in particle accelerators.

 

Next, learn about Bimetallism and the Silver Standard | Precious Metals at Odds.

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