by Henry Smith Williams
Historically, two forms of pseudo-science were peculiarly prevalent --alchemy and astrology. Neither of these can with full propriety be called a science, yet both were pursued by many of the greatest scientific workers of the period. Moreover, the studies of the alchemist may with some propriety be said to have laid the foundation for the latter-day science of chemistry; while astrology was closely allied to astronomy, though its relations to that science are not as intimate as has sometimes been supposed.
Just when the study of alchemy began is undetermined. It was certainly of very ancient origin, perhaps Egyptian, but its most flourishing time was from about the eighth century A.D. to the eighteenth century. The stories of the Old Testament formed a basis for some of the strange beliefs regarding the properties of the magic "elixir," or "philosopher's stone." Alchemists believed that most of the antediluvians, perhaps all of them, possessed a knowledge of this stone. How, otherwise, could they have prolonged their lives to nine and a half centuries? And Moses was surely a first-rate alchemist, as is proved by the story of the Golden Calf. After Aaron had made the calf of gold, Moses performed the much more difficult task of grinding it to powder and "strewing it upon the waters," thus showing that he had transmuted it into some lighter substance.
But antediluvians and Biblical characters were not the only persons who were thought to have discovered the coveted. "elixir." Hundreds of aged mediaeval chemists were credited with having made the discovery, and were thought to be living on through the centuries by its means. Alaies de Lisle, for example, who died in 1298, at the age of 110, was alleged to have been at the point of death at the age of fifty, but just at this time he made the fortunate discovery of the magic stone, and so continued to live in health and affluence for sixty years more. And De Lisle was but one case among hundreds.
An aged and wealthy alchemist could claim with seeming plausibility that he was prolonging his life by his magic; whereas a younger man might assert that, knowing the great secret, he was keeping himself young through the centuries. In either case such a statement, or rumor, about a learned and wealthy alchemist was likely to be believed, particularly among strangers; and as such a man would, of course, be the object of much attention, the claim was frequently made by persons seeking notoriety. One of the most celebrated of these impostors was a certain Count de Saint-Germain, who was connected with the court of Louis XV. His statements carried the more weight because, having apparently no means of maintenance, he continued to live in affluence year after year--for two thousand years, as he himself admitted--by means of the magic stone. If at any time his statements were doubted, he was in the habit of referring to his valet for confirmation, this valet being also under the influence of the elixir of life.
"Upon one occasion his master was telling a party of ladies and gentlemen, at dinner, some conversation he had had in Palestine, with King Richard I., of England, whom he described as a very particular friend of his. Signs of astonishment and incredulity were visible on the faces of the company, upon which Saint-Germain very coolly turned to his servant, who stood behind his chair, and asked him if he had not spoken the truth. 'I really cannot say,' replied the man, without moving a muscle; 'you forget, sir, I have been only five hundred years in your service.' 'Ah, true,' said his master, 'I remember now; it was a little before your time!' "
In the time of Saint-Germain, only a little over a century ago, belief in alchemy had almost disappeared, and his extraordinary tales were probably regarded in the light of amusing stories. Still there was undoubtedly a lingering suspicion in the minds of many that this man possessed some peculiar secret. A few centuries earlier his tales would hardly have been questioned, for at that time the belief in the existence of this magic something was so strong that the search for it became almost a form of mania; and once a man was seized with it, lie gambled away health, position, and life itself in pursuing the coveted stake. An example of this is seen in Albertus Magnus, one of the most learned men of his time, who it is said resigned his position as bishop of Ratisbon in order that he might pursue his researches in alchemy.
If self-sacrifice was not sufficient to secure the prize, crime would naturally follow, for there could be no limit to the price of the stakes in this game. The notorious Marechal de Reys, failing to find the coveted stone by ordinary methods of laboratory research, was persuaded by an impostor that if he would propitiate the friendship of the devil the secret would be revealed. To this end De Reys began secretly capturing young children as they passed his castle and murdering them. When he was at last brought to justice it was proved that he had murdered something like a hundred children within a period of three years. So, at least, runs one version of the story of this perverted being.
Naturally monarchs, constantly in need of funds, were interested in these alchemists. Even sober England did not escape, and Raymond Lully, one of the most famous of the thirteenth and fourteenth century alchemists, is said to have been secretly invited by King Edward I. (or II.) to leave Milan and settle in England. According to some accounts, apartments were assigned to his use in the Tower of London, where he is alleged to have made some six million pounds sterling for the monarch, out of iron, mercury, lead, and pewter.
Pope John XXII., a friend and pupil of the alchemist Arnold de Villeneuve, is reported to have learned the secrets of alchemy from his master. Later he issued two bulls against "pretenders" in the art, which, far from showing his disbelief, were cited by alchemists as proving that he recognized pretenders as distinct from true masters of magic.
To moderns the attitude of mind of the alchemist is difficult to comprehend. It is, perhaps, possible to conceive of animals or plants possessing souls, but the early alchemist attributed the same thing--or something kin to it--to metals also. Furthermore, just as plants germinated from seeds, so metals were supposed to germinate also, and hence a constant growth of metals in the ground. To prove this the alchemist cited cases where previously exhausted gold-mines were found, after a lapse of time, to contain fresh quantities of gold. The "seed" of the remaining particles of gold had multiplied and increased. But this germinating process could only take place under favorable conditions, just as the seed of a plant must have its proper surroundings before germinating; and it was believed that the action of the philosopher's stone was to hasten this process, as man may hasten the growth of plants by artificial means. Gold was looked upon as the most perfect metal, and all other metals imperfect, because not yet "purified." By some alchemists they were regarded as lepers, who, when cured of their leprosy, would become gold. And since nature intended that all things should be perfect, it was the aim of the alchemist to assist her in this purifying process, and incidentally to gain wealth and prolong his life.
By other alchemists the process of transition from baser metals into gold was conceived to be like a process of ripening fruit. The ripened product was gold, while the green fruit, in various stages of maturity, was represented by the base metals. Silver, for example, was more nearly ripe than lead; but the difference was only one of "digestion," and it was thought that by further "digestion" lead might first become silver and eventually gold. In other words, Nature had not completed her work, and was wofully slow at it at best; but man, with his superior faculties, was to hasten the process in his laboratories--if he could but hit upon the right method of doing so.
It should not be inferred that the alchemist set about his task of assisting nature in a haphazard way, and without training in the various alchemic laboratory methods. On the contrary, he usually served a long apprenticeship in the rudiments of his calling. He was obliged to learn, in a general way, many of the same things that must be understood in either chemical or alchemical laboratories. The general knowledge that certain liquids vaporize at lower temperatures than others, and that the melting-points of metals differ greatly, for example, was just as necessary to alchemy as to chemistry. The knowledge of the gross structure, or nature, of materials was much the same to the alchemist as to the chemist, and, for that matter, many of the experiments in calcining, distilling, etc., were practically identical.
But there was one experiment to which the alchemist pinned his faith in showing that metals could be "killed" and "revived," when proper means were employed. It had been known for many centuries that if any metal, other than gold or silver, were calcined in an open crucible, it turned, after a time, into a peculiar kind of ash. This ash was thought by the alchemist to represent the death of the metal. But if to this same ash a few grains of wheat were added and heat again applied to the crucible, the metal was seen to "rise from its ashes" and resume its original form--a well-known phenomenon of reducing metals from oxides by the use of carbon, in the form of wheat, or, for that matter, any other carbonaceous substance. Wheat was, therefore, made the symbol of the resurrection of the life eternal. Oats, corn, or a piece of charcoal would have "revived" the metals from the ashes equally well, but the mediaeval alchemist seems not to have known this. However, in this experiment the metal seemed actually to be destroyed and revivified, and, as science had not as yet explained this striking phenomenon, it is little wonder that it deceived the alchemist.
Since the alchemists pursued their search of the magic stone in such a methodical way, it would seem that they must have some idea of the appearance of the substance they sought. Probably they did, each according to his own mental bias; but, if so, they seldom committed themselves to writing, confining their discourses largely to speculations as to the properties of this illusive substance. Furthermore, the desire for secrecy would prevent them from expressing so important a piece of information. But on the subject of the properties, if not on the appearance of the "essence," they were voluminous writers. It was supposed to be the only perfect substance in existence, and to be confined in various substances, in quantities proportionate to the state of perfection of the substance. Thus, gold being most nearly perfect would contain more, silver less, lead still less, and so on. The "essence" contained in the more nearly perfect metals was thought to be more potent, a very small quantity of it being capable of creating large quantities of gold and of prolonging life indefinitely.
It would appear from many of the writings of the alchemists that their conception of nature and the supernatural was so confused and entangled in an inexplicable philosophy that they themselves did not really understand the meaning of what they were attempting to convey. But it should not be forgotten that alchemy was kept as much as possible from the ignorant general public, and the alchemists themselves had knowledge of secret words and expressions which conveyed a definite meaning to one of their number, but which would appear a meaningless jumble to an outsider. Some of these writers declared openly that their writings were intended to convey an entirely erroneous impression, and were sent out only for that purpose.
However, while it may have been true that the vagaries of their writings were made purposely, the case is probably more correctly explained by saying that the very nature of the art made definite statements impossible. They were dealing with something that did not exist--could not exist. Their attempted descriptions became, therefore, the language of romance rather than the language of science.
But if the alchemists themselves were usually silent as to the appearance of the actual substance of the philosopher's stone, there were numberless other writers who were less reticent. By some it was supposed to be a stone, by others a liquid or elixir, but more commonly it was described as a black powder. It also possessed different degrees of efficiency according to its degrees of purity, certain forms only possessing the power of turning base metals into gold, while others gave eternal youth and life or different degrees of health. Thus an alchemist, who had made a partial discovery of this substance, could prolong life a certain number of years only, or, possessing only a small and inadequate amount of the magic powder, he was obliged to give up the ghost when the effect of this small quantity had passed away.
This belief in the supernatural power of the philosopher's stone to prolong life and heal diseases was probably a later phase of alchemy, possibly developed by attempts to connect the power of the mysterious essence with Biblical teachings. The early Roman alchemists, who claimed to be able to transmute metals, seem not to have made other claims for their magic stone.
By the fifteenth century the belief in the philosopher's stone had become so fixed that governments began to be alarmed lest some lucky possessor of the secret should flood the country with gold, thus rendering the existing coin of little value. Some little consolation was found in the thought that in case all the baser metals were converted into gold iron would then become the "precious metal," and would remain so until some new philosopher's stone was found to convert gold back into iron--a much more difficult feat, it was thought. However, to be on the safe side, the English Parliament, in 1404, saw fit to pass an act declaring the making of gold and silver to be a felony. Nevertheless, in 1455, King Henry VI. granted permission to several "knights, citizens of London, chemists, and monks" to find the philosopher's stone, or elixir, that the crown might thus be enabled to pay off its debts. The monks and ecclesiastics were supposed to be most likely to discover the secret process, since "they were such good artists in transubstantiating bread and wine."
In Germany the emperors Maximilian I., Rudolf II., and Frederick II. gave considerable attention to the search, and the example they set was followed by thousands of their subjects. It is said that some noblemen developed the unpleasant custom of inviting to their courts men who were reputed to have found the stone, and then imprisoning the poor alchemists until they had made a certain quantity of gold, stimulating their activity with tortures of the most atrocious kinds. Thus this danger of being imprisoned and held for ransom until some fabulous amount of gold should be made became the constant menace of the alchemist. It was useless for an alchemist to plead poverty once it was noised about that he had learned the secret. For how could such a man be poor when, with a piece of metal and a few grains of magic powder, he was able to provide himself with gold? It was, therefore, a reckless alchemist indeed who dared boast that he had made the coveted discovery.
The fate of a certain indiscreet alchemist, supposed by many to have been Seton, a Scotchman, was not an uncommon one. Word having been brought to the elector of Saxony that this alchemist was in Dresden and boasting of his powers, the elector caused him to be arrested and imprisoned. Forty guards were stationed to see that he did not escape and that no one visited him save the elector himself. For some time the elector tried by argument and persuasion to penetrate his secret or to induce him to make a certain quantity of gold; but as Seton steadily refused, the rack was tried, and for several months he suffered torture, until finally, reduced to a mere skeleton, be was rescued by a rival candidate of the elector, a Pole named Michael Sendivogins, who drugged the guards. However, before Seton could be "persuaded" by his new captor, he died of his injuries.
But Sendivogins was also ambitious in alchemy, and, since Seton was beyond his reach, he took the next best step and married his widow. From her, as the story goes, he received an ounce of black powder--the veritable philosopher's stone. With this he manufactured great quantities of gold, even inviting Emperor Rudolf II. to see him work the miracle. That monarch was so impressed that he caused a tablet to be inserted in the wall of the room in which he had seen the gold made.
Sendivogins had learned discretion from the misfortune of Seton, so that he took the precaution of concealing most of the precious powder in a secret chamber of his carriage when he travelled, having only a small quantity carried by his steward in a gold box. In particularly dangerous places, he is said to have exchanged clothes with his coachman, making the servant take his place in the carriage while he mounted the box.
About the middle of the seventeenth century alchemy took such firm root in the religious field that it became the basis of the sect known as the Rosicrucians. The name was derived from the teaching of a German philosopher, Rosenkreutz, who, having been healed of a dangerous illness by an Arabian supposed to possess the philosopher's stone, returned home and gathered about him a chosen band of friends, to whom he imparted the secret. This sect came rapidly into prominence, and for a short time at least created a sensation in Europe, and at the time were credited with having "refined and spiritualized" alchemy. But by the end of the seventeenth century their number had dwindled to a mere handful, and henceforth they exerted little influence.
Another and earlier religious sect was the Aureacrucians, founded by Jacob Bohme, a shoemaker, born in Prussia in 1575. According to his teachings the philosopher's stone could be discovered by a diligent search of the Old and the New Testaments, and more particularly the Apocalypse, which contained all the secrets of alchemy. This sect found quite a number of followers during the life of Bohme, but gradually died out after his death; not, however, until many of its members had been tortured for heresy, and one at least, Kuhlmann, of Moscow, burned as a sorcerer.
The names of the different substances that at various times were thought to contain the large quantities of the "essence" during the many centuries of searching for it, form a list of practically all substances that were known, discovered, or invented during the period. Some believed that acids contained the substance; others sought it in minerals or in animal or vegetable products; while still others looked to find it among the distilled "spirits"--the alcoholic liquors and distilled products. On the introduction of alcohol by the Arabs that substance became of all-absorbing interest, and for a long time allured the alchemist into believing that through it they were soon to be rewarded. They rectified and refined it until "sometimes it was so strong that it broke the vessels containing it," but still it failed in its magic power. Later, brandy was substituted for it, and this in turn discarded for more recent discoveries.
There were always, of course, two classes of alchemists: serious investigators whose honesty could not be questioned, and clever impostors whose legerdemain was probably largely responsible for the extended belief in the existence of the philosopher's stone. Sometimes an alchemist practised both, using the profits of his sleight-of-hand to procure the means of carrying on his serious alchemical researches. The impostures of some of these jugglers deceived even the most intelligent and learned men of the time, and so kept the flame of hope constantly burning. The age of cold investigation had not arrived, and it is easy to understand how an unscrupulous mediaeval Hermann or Kellar might completely deceive even the most intelligent and thoughtful scholars. In scoffing at the credulity of such an age, it should not be forgotten that the "Keely motor" was a late nineteenth-century illusion.
But long before the belief in the philosopher's stone had died out, the methods of the legerdemain alchemist had been investigated and reported upon officially by bodies of men appointed to make such investigations, although it took several generations completely to overthrow a superstition that had been handed down through several thousand years. In April of 1772 Monsieur Geoffroy made a report to the Royal Academy of Sciences, at Paris, on the alchemic cheats principally of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this report he explains many of the seemingly marvellous feats of the unscrupulous alchemists. A very common form of deception was the use of a double-bottomed crucible. A copper or brass crucible was covered on the inside with a layer of wax, cleverly painted so as to resemble the ordinary metal. Between this layer of wax and the bottom of the crucible, however, was a layer of gold dust or silver. When the alchemist wished to demonstrate his power, he had but to place some mercury or whatever substance he chose in the crucible, heat it, throw in a grain or two of some mysterious powder, pronounce a few equally mysterious phrases to impress his audience, and, behold, a lump of precious metal would be found in the bottom of his pot. This was the favorite method of mediocre performers, but was, of course, easily detected.
An equally successful but more difficult way was to insert surreptitiously a lump of metal into the mixture, using an ordinary crucible. This required great dexterity, but was facilitated by the use of many mysterious ceremonies on the part of the operator while performing, just as the modern vaudeville performer diverts the attention of the audience to his right hand while his left is engaged in the trick. Such ceremonies were not questioned, for it was the common belief that the whole process "lay in the spirit as much as in the substance," many, as we have seen, regarding the whole process as a divine manifestation.
Sometimes a hollow rod was used for stirring the mixture in the crucible, this rod containing gold dust, and having the end plugged either with wax or soft metal that was easily melted. Again, pieces of lead were used which had been plugged with lumps of gold carefully covered over; and a very simple and impressive demonstration was making use of a nugget of gold that had been coated over with quicksilver and tarnished so as to resemble lead or some base metal. When this was thrown into acid the coating was removed by chemical action, leaving the shining metal in the bottom of the vessel. In order to perform some of these tricks, it is obvious that the alchemist must have been well supplied with gold, as some of them, when performing before a royal audience, gave the products to their visitors. But it was always a paying investment, for once his reputation was established the gold-maker found an endless variety of ways of turning his alleged knowledge to account, frequently amassing great wealth.
Some of the cleverest of the charlatans often invited royal or other distinguished guests to bring with them iron nails to be turned into gold ones. They were transmuted in the alchemist's crucible before the eyes of the visitors, the juggler adroitly extracting the iron nail and inserting a gold one without detection. It mattered little if the converted gold nail differed in size and shape from the original, for this change in shape could be laid to the process of transmutation; and even the very critical were hardly likely to find fault with the exchange thus made. Furthermore, it was believed that gold possessed the property of changing its bulk under certain conditions, some of the more conservative alchemists maintaining that gold was only increased in bulk, not necessarily created, by certain forms of the magic stone. Thus a very proficient operator was thought to be able to increase a grain of gold into a pound of pure metal, while one less expert could only double, or possibly treble, its original weight.
The actual number of useful discoveries resulting from the efforts of the alchemists is considerable, some of them of incalculable value. Roger Bacon, who lived in the thirteenth century, while devoting much of his time to alchemy, made such valuable discoveries as the theory, at least, of the telescope, and probably gunpowder. Of this latter we cannot be sure that the discovery was his own and that he had not learned of it through the source of old manuscripts. But it is not impossible nor improbable that he may have hit upon the mixture that makes the explosives while searching for the philosopher's stone in his laboratory. "Von Helmont, in the same pursuit, discoverd the properties of gas," says Mackay; "Geber made discoveries in chemistry, which were equally important; and Paracelsus, amid his perpetual visions of the transmutation of metals, found that mercury was a remedy for one of the most odious and excruciating of all the diseases that afflict humanity."
Henry Smith Williams ends his alchemical monologue with reference to Syphilis. One is drawn to wonder how many other chemicals Paracelsus tried upon his diseased organ before his discovery that quicksilver compounds were effective.....
from A History of Science, vol 2, by Henry Smith Williams