Alchemy was a pseudoscience that flourished during the Middle Ages. Its chief aims were the transmutation of base metals into gold and silver, and the discovery of an elixir of eternal youth. The alchemists searched in vain for the philosopher’s stone, a substance that, if properly treated, would allegedly transmute lead, iron, copper, or tin into gold or silver—but particularly gold.
Perhaps it is only coincidental that Sir Isaac Newton, the master of the London mint from 1699 to 1726 and one of the towering intellects in the history of humanity, spent years conducting experiments in alchemy, leaving behind manuscripts on alchemy of 100,000 words. Between 1661 and 1692 experiments in alchemy accounted for most of Newton’s laboratory work. He experimented with alchemy while he was writing his masterpiece, the Principia.
The origins of alchemy stretch back into the murky recesses of history. One legend suggests that Jason’s golden fleece was actually a papyrus manuscript describing the gold-producing secrets of alchemy. Probably a combination of Greek speculation, Eastern mysticism, and Egyptian technology conspired to make Alexandria, Egypt, one of the first centers of alchemical studies in the West. The Roman emperor Diocletian ordered all Egyptian texts on alchemy destroyed after crushing an Egyptian rebellion at the end of the third century. Apparently his action was taken only to punish the Egyptians. Evidence of alchemical studies in China show up as early as the second century b.c., and India also boasts of an ancient tradition of alchemy.
The Arabs inherited both the Eastern and Western traditions of alchemy, and went far toward developing the science of chemistry while practicing alchemy. The greatest of the Islamic alchemists was the Great Geber, regarded in medieval Europe as the father of alchemy. To the Arab alchemists we owe the terms alcohol, alkali, borax, and elixir.
The study of alchemy passed from the Arabs into Europe through Spain. In 1181 the University of Montpellier was founded in southern France. It became the birthplace of European alchemy, producing in the thirteenth century several of the most famous alchemists, including Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, the most renowned of the medieval scientists. Another famous graduate, St. Thomas Aquinas, also wrote on alchemy. Like their Arab predecessors, the European alchemists believed that all metals were constituted of varying proportions of two metals, mercury and sulfur. Much of their research centered on the quest for an elusive elementary solvent with which metals could be broken down into these two basic elements and then reconstituted in different proportions, resulting in different metals.
It was with good reason that alchemists were perceived as charlatans promising more than they could deliver, yet at the same time they were suspected of being in league with dark forces and, akin to sorcerers, using black magic and charms.
The European monarchies also suspected alchemists of fraudulent and heretical practices, but were always in a bind for money. Although fearing alchemists as potential counterfeiters, they could not resist the lure of the alchemists’ promise to convert lead and other base metals into gold. James II of Scotland is reported to have dabbled in alchemy himself. King Charles II of England inherited a bare treasury and sought a solution to his fiscal problems in the magic of alchemy. He built his own laboratory for alchemical investigations connected to his bed-chamber by a secret staircase. France also turned to alchemists to help finance wars with England, and both countries issued gold-colored currency as soldiers’ pay. In the twentieth century Adolf Hitler is reported to have sought the services of scientists engaged in alchemical studies, hoping to bolster Germany’s gold reserves.
The famous English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, in his book Advancement of Learning (1605), may have caught the significance of alchemy when he wrote, “Alchemy may be likened to the man who told his sons that he had buried gold in the vineyard; where they by digging found no gold but by turning up the mold about the roots of the vines procured a plentiful vintage.”