Roger Highfield explores where modern chemistry all started, uncovering the early attempts to turn metals into gold with the Philosopher’s Stone and the quest to track down the secret to immortality.
What is alchemy?
Alchemy is an ancient tradition that stretches back millennia in Europe, Africa and Asia – a mysterious and often misunderstood blend of science, philosophy and spirituality, and a forerunner of modern chemistry.
From antiquity, people could carry out apparently magical transformations, for instance by using heat to turn sand into glass. You can see how witnessing this kind of phenomenon might inspire the quest to change one element to another (even though it wasn’t until 1932 that an atom smasher successfully carried out the first true transmutation).
The word alchemy comes from the Arabic al-kīmiyā', ‘the art of transmuting metals’, reflecting how alchemists sought ways to change what they called ‘base metals’ such as lead, into ‘noble metals’, notably gold.
What is the Philosopher's Stone?
The primary goal of alchemy was the transformation of physical substances from a state of imperfect temporal existence into one of spiritual perfection.
The Philosopher’s Stone was supposedly able to achieve this – indeed it was so transformative that it was also an elixir of life – handy for rejuvenation and achieving immortality. It’s no wonder then that for centuries, the Philosopher’s Stone obsessed so many alchemists.
One of the most beautiful of all alchemical manuscripts – the Splendor Solis (‘Splendour of the Sun’) – was (wrongly) attributed to the legendary figure Salomon Trismosin, who claimed to have defeated old age with the Stone. Within the Splendor Solis, we can see a man emerging from a swamp transforming from black to white to red, representing the transition from putrefaction to purification to perfection.
Alchemy would gradually yield to what we think of today as chemistry, for instance with the publication of The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle in 1661, which suggested that matter consists of atoms. Along with this, it soon became clear that chemical elements came in families and could be organised into what came to be known as the Periodic Table (chemists would eventually realise that this pattern is to do with the way electrons organise themselves in orbits around atomic nuclei.)
What does a recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone look like?
Before chemists developed a common language for their ideas, materials and processes, alchemists had to make do with signs and symbols from mythology and astrology. As a consequence, even a basic recipe read like a spell.
Dragons, toads and a robed bearded figure clutching an alchemical vessel feature in the Ripley scrolls, which are named after the English alchemist George Ripley, a canon at Bridlington Priory in Yorkshire. Written in verse, and thought to be copies of a lost original, they reveal ‘the right & perfectest meanes to make the Philosophers Stone’.
There was another reason for the common use of obscure signs and symbols though: just as Coca Cola would never share their recipe for Coke, any promising recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone would be a closely guarded secret. Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyānc (c.721–c. 815), who was born and educated in Tus, Iran, is sometimes referred to as the father of early chemistry because of his systematic experiments. However, because he and his peers resorted to incomprehensible technical jargon, it is from Jabir (Latinised as Geber) that we get the term ‘gibberish’.
Did Nicholas Flamel really seek the Philosopher’s Stone?
Nicholas Flamel was a 14th-century French scribe and manuscript seller and was known to have been an influence on well-known 17th-century chemists such as Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton. His reputation as an alchemist derives ultimately from posthumous accounts of his life dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, which describe how Flamel had a prophetic dream, following which he discovered a rare manuscript that revealed the recipe of the Philosopher’s Stone.
First published in Germany in 1735, the Uraltes Chymisches Werck (‘Age-Old Chemical Work’) claimed to be a translation of this lost recipe. In one illustration, a serpent and a crowned dragon form a circle, head-to-tail, to symbolise the unification of materia (primary matter) with spiritus universalis (the universal spirit), considered essential in the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone.
Alas, the elixir did not seem to do Flamel much good. He died around 1418, in his late eighties, albeit achieving a ripe old age. All the suggestions about Flamel being an alchemist date from the 17th century and were probably a later invention.
Was the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone a waste of time?
Not exactly. Some real insights emerged from proto chemistry: alchemists invented distillation, proto-morphine (laudanum), oil paints and inks, and more.
The German alchemist, Hennig Brand, isolated phosphorus from urine in around 1669. Such was the impact of Brand’s feat that more than a century later, Joseph Wright of Derby, recorded this alchemical breakthrough in his painting, given it the less than succinct title: The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers.