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Transmutation of Metals

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Transmutation of Metals

‘The third class contains the Alchemists, or those who teach the art of converting baser metals, into more noble. Alchemy may be divided into three branches: The first shews how to separate the glebes, or corpuscles of gold contain’d in other metals: The second how to digest and ripen the crude, imperfect matter of gold in other metals: The third, to transmute or convert one metal into another. The first part belongs to the metallurgia: The last is emplo’d in search of the philosopher’s-stone, i.e. a powder, a little whereof cast into a quantity of any metal in fusion, converts it all into pure gold. Not contented with this, the alchemists will needs carry this last part much farther: viz. To the finding of the philosopher’s ferment, a matter which being pour’d on gold, converts it into the philosopher’s-stone.
The road to same by the way of alchemy, is very slippery and hazardous…’

Herman Boerhaave, A new method of chemistry (London, 1727), p. 42.

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Michael Maier, Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum (Frankfurt, 1687), p. 52.

The road was slippery and hazardous not least because the destination was a matter of debate since the ‘philosopher’s stone’ might be many things to many men. Spiritual alchemists such as Michael Maier (1568?-1622) might point to the act of transmutation as an indication of the spiritual attainment of the alchemist but Johann Joachim Becher (1635-1682), whose Minera arenaria perpetua (London, 1680) was also in Worth’s library, was more concerned with its utility for the body politic than the soul of the individual alchemist. Certainly, as Pamela Smith (1997) argues, Becher sought to use alchemical lore to explain to the imperial court more mundane issues of material increase. He was, in her words, as much a ‘commercial advisor’ as a court alchemist. But if there was disagreement on the purpose of transmutation, all were agreed that fire played a major role in its process: fire was necessary to refine the base metals which could, hopefully, be transformed into something finer than their original substance. But, as the caption of Emblem XVIII from Worth’s copy of Michael Maier’s Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum (Frankfurt, 1687) reminded the reader, ‘Fire loves making thinges fiery, but unlike gold, it does not make gold’.

 

Islamic Alchemy

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Elias Ashmole, Theatrum chemicum Britannicum… (London, 1652), H2v.

In this illustration of famous alchemists in Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum, first and foremost is ‘Geberus’, the author of an influential text, the Summa Perfectionis of which Worth had a copy. Herman Boerhaave, in his short history of chemistry, identified Geber with an eighth-century Arabic philosopher called Abu Musa Jābir ibn Hayyān, who he calls ‘the first great reformer and improver of chemistry’. However,  as William R. Newman (1991) has demonstrated, the text was actually written by a late thirteenth-century writer called Paul of Taranto. Central to Geber’s quest for the philosopher’s stone was mercury which in his view could be purified by fire to such an extent that it first attained a level of ‘fixity’ which would allow it to ‘conquer the fire’. At this stage it could, in his view, be further refined to enable it to transmute into gold. The positioning of Geber beside Arnauld of Villanova in Ashmole’s illustation reflects the debt owed by the latter to the Summa Perfectionis, while the third figure, ‘Rhazes’, (the tenth-century Persian al-Rāzī) may have been a source for some of the Pseudo-Geber’s text. Geber’s Lapis Philosophorum was edited by Jacques Golius, a seventeenth-century professor of oriental languages at Leiden and Boerhaave, though critical of Geber’s concentration on the search for the philosopher’s stone, considered that his work contained ‘abundance of curious and useful things about the nature of metals, their purification, fusion, malleability, &c with excellent account of salts, and aquae fortes.’

That the alchemical quest for the transmutation of gold continued into the early eighteenth-century collection of Worth is demonstrated by the inclusion of Jean-Jacques Manget’s Bibliotheca chemica curiosa, seu Rerum ad alchemiam pertinentium thesaurus instructissimus (Cologne, 1702). Worth had a number of Manget’s works, including his famous 1721 treatise on plague. The inclusion of Manget’s compilatory work on chymistry should, then, be seen in the context of Worth’s clear interest in Manget’s mainstream medical output.

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Jean Jacques Manget, Bibliotheca chemica curiosa… (Cologne, 1702), frontispiece portrait.

Manget (1652-1742), a Swiss doctor who had made an international name for himself, brought together a host of medieval and early modern texts in this compilatory volume which Duveen (1949) calls ‘the most complete collection of alchemical texts ever published’. As the title made clear, not only works on transmutation of gold but on as broad as possible a spectrum of alchemical lore were included. Although works by medieval authors such as Geber, Roger Bacon, Arnauld of Villanova and the mythical Hermes Trismegistus accounted for the majority of the 140 treatises, more contemporary authors such as Athanasius Kircher were not ignored. It was perhaps for these later treatises that Worth collected it since he would have had many of the earlier texts available to him in his six-volume set of Eberhard Zetzner’s edition of Theatrum chemicum…(Strasssburg, 1659-1661). Some of Manget’s more contemporary texts, such as Daniel Georg Morhof’s 1673 letter to Joël Langellott, dealt specifically with transmutation of gold.

George Wilson’s comments on making gold

Not all were as sanguine as some of Manget’s authors had been about the possibility of making gold. As the following excerpt from Worth’s copy of George Wilson’s A compleat course of chymistry (London, 1721) makes clear, Michael Maier’s theory that the seeds of gold were to be found in gold alone had rather costly implications in practice:
‘Notwithstanding our ill Success in the last, my old Friend pressed hard for another Experiment; saying, he was very positive we should now succeed, if we added a little Sol to the former prepared Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Luna; besides, he offered to be at the Charges, and that I only should be the careful Operator. Accordingly, on The eleventh of February, A.D. 1699, he brought me two Drams of fine Gold, which I dissolv’d in Aqua Regis, and cohobated six times.
I dissolved also two Ounces of fine Silver in half a Pound of Aqua Fortis. To this Dissolution I put two Ounces (he thinking there was too little in our last Work) of the Mercurial Mass, one Ounce and a half of the Martial Tincture, and two Ounces of the Aes Ustum; and at last the aforementioned Gold, (dissolv’d in the Aqua Regia.) After they had stood a sufficient time on warm Sand, I decanted them clear. The brown Faeces I supposed to be Gold, but I soon dissolv’d them in Spirit of Nitre, except a very little white Matter, and decanted this Dissolution also.
The twenty-second; I put the two Dissolutions into a Retort, and drew of almost to a dry bottom: I cohobated six times, at last drawing all off to a dryness.
The twenty-eighth; I put the Substance (left in the bottom of my Retort) into a Crucible, proceeding as in the former Process, and melted it with a fluxing Powder, and poured it into an Ingot Mould; when it was cold, I turn’d out the Ingot, and beat off the Scoria.
The Ingot was a little tinged, and the Scoria had some Grains of Metal much like Gold.
I reduced the Scoria into Powder, and, by frequent Washing, separated the yellow Washing, separated the yellow Metallick Particles, which weighed one Dram and eight Grains; and these stood the Test of Aqua Fortis.
I beat the Ingot into thin Lamels, and dissolv’d them in Aqua Fortis, to separate the Luna from the Sol; and here I found one Dram, two Scruples, and five Grains of Gold.
I also separated the Luna from the Aqua Fortis, by the help of Venus, and had one Ounce, six Drams, one Scruple, and three Grains of Silver.
So I lost one Dram, one Scruple, and seventeen Grains of Silver, and gain’d two Scruples and thirteen Grains of Gold.
But, considering the Trouble and Expence of the Experiment, I believe the Reader will agree with me, That this Gold was bought too dear.’

Wilson, George, A compleat course of chymistry (London, 1721) pp 379-81.

 

Sources

Boerhaave, Herman (1727), A new method of chemistry (London).

Duveen, Denis I. (1949), Bibliotheca Alchemica et Chemica. An annotated catalogue of printed books on Alchemy, Chemistry and Cognate Subjects in the Library of Denis I. Duveen (London).

Michael Maier (1687), Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum (Frankfurt). A translation of Michael Maier’s epigrams is available at: http://www.alchemywebsite.com/atalanta.html

Newman, William R. (1991) (ed.) The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber: A Critical Edition, Translation and Study (Leiden).

Newman, William R. (1994) Gehennical Fire. The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (Harvard Univesity Press).

Smith, Pamela H. (1997), The Business of Alchemy. Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire (Princeton).

Taylor, Gail, (2008) ‘By the Book: Alchemy and the Laboratory Manual from Al-Rāzī to Libavius, 920-1597’. Accessed on 6 October 2011 at: http://www.cipa.ulg.ac.be/intervalles4/79_taylor.pdf

Wilson, George (1721), A compleat course of chymistry (London).

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