Alchemy Essay, Research Paper

Alchemy -The Predecessor of Modern Chemistry

There are many ways to examine the subject of alchemy, including alchemy as a

source of symbolism, psychology, and mysticism. It has also been an influence on

the world view of various writers, artist, and musicians. The focus of this

report is alchemy as a pre-chemistry, which gave a new impulse towards the

preparation of medicinal remedies and also was a major influence on today’s

scientific investigations.

Alchemy is an ancient art, practiced in the Middle Ages. The fundamental

concept of alchemy stemmed from Aristotle’s doctrine that all things tend to

reach perfection. Because other metals were thought to be less perfect than

gold, it was reasonable to believe that nature created gold out of other metals

found deep within the earth and that a skilled artisan could duplicate this

process. It was said that once someone was able to change, or transmute a

"base" chemical into the perfect metal, gold, they would have achieved

eternal life and salvation. In this way, alchemy turned into not only a

scientific quest, but a spiritual quest as well. Although the purposes and

techniques were often times ritualistic and fanciful, alchemy was in many ways

the predecessor of modern science, especially the science of chemistry.

The birthplace of alchemy was ancient Egypt, where, in Alexandria, it began

to flourish during the Hellenistic period. Also at that time, a school of

alchemy was developing in China. The writings of some Greek philosophers may be

considered to be among the very first chemical theories, such as the theory that

all things are composed of air, earth, fire, and water. Each of these were

represented by different elements, such as sulfur, salt, mercury, and, ideally,

gold. Other ideas held by alchemists were that each of the known elements were

represented by heavenly bodies. Gold was earth’s representation of the sun,

silver for the moon, mercury for the planet Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for

Mars, tin for Jupiter, and lead for Saturn.

The typical alchemist’s laboratory in Renaissance Europe was a dark,

cluttered place that stank of smoke and mysterious chemicals. Many alchemists

worked at home, in order to save money and avoid outside interference. Some

settled in the kitchen, to take advantage of the cooking fire. Others chose the

attic or cellar, where late-night activity was less likely to be noticed by

inquisitive neighbors. These small, makeshift laboratories were often filled

with a grimy jumble of instruments, manuscripts, skulls, animal specimens, and

assorted mystical objects. Most alchemists also had an alter in their lab, which

was a aid they deemed necessary to the spiritual aspects of their pursuit-

eternal life and unimaginable power. In these surroundings that owed more to

mysticism than to science, attempts to discover the magical substance that would

turn "base" metals into gold inadvertently laid much of the groundwork

for the later discipline of applied chemistry. Alchemists were the first to

isolate a number of chemicals, from phosphorus to hydrochloric acid, and they

also developed new equipment and methods for distilling fluids, assaying metals,

and controlling chemical reactions.

One method the alchemist helped to develop was the use of heat to start

reactions. Thomas Norton, a fifteenth century alchemist wrote "A perfect

Master ye may call him true, that knoweth his Heates both high and lowe."

The alchemist experimented with a number of furnaces, water baths, and other

heating apparatus. They also refined the process of distillation and created

many flasks and stills.

As the world approached the late 18th century, people grew skeptical of

alchemy’s mystical and astrological attempts at turning common metals into gold.

The alchemists of Europe then divided into two separate groups. One group took

up the visionary, metaphysical side of the older alchemy and developed it into a

practice based on imposture, necromancy, and fraud, which is the prevailing

notion of alchemy today. The other group, however, devoted themselves to the

scientific discovery of new compounds and reactions. These few scientists were

the legitimate ancestors of modern chemistry.


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Alchemy The Art Of Knowing
Alchemy In The Middle Ages
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