The Calcination of Antimony
‘Calcination… is such a Separation of Bodies by Fire, as makes ‘em easily reducible into Powder; and for that reason ‘tis call’d by some Chymical Pulverization.’
John Friend, Chymical Lectures (London, 1712), p. 16.
Calcination of antimony by the Sun.
Nicaise Le Fèvre, A compleat body of chymistry (London, 1670), 4D3r.
Nicaise Le Fèvre’s Solar Calcination of Antimony
‘We have demonstrated before, that the Antimonial Calcinations made with Niter, were opened by it, purified and fixed; which could not be done, unless this Salt did partake altogether of the nature of Light, which is found to be corporified in it: But we must shew pathetically here, that the Sun, Father and Spring of the Light, by whom Niter is generated, doth purifie and fix Antimony much better, and with more efficacy then Niter can do; which is a kind of Calcination Philosophical indeed, and worthy of a Son of Art, whose curiousity leads him to search and pry into the Wonders of Art and Nature: But those that are ignorant of the noble Works and rare Effects of Magical and Celestial Fire, drawn from the Rayes of the Sun, by the help of a Refracting or Burning-Glass, shall scarce believe that which we have to say, and are to demonstrate upon this Subject.For this noble and miraculous Fire, preserves and encreases the substance of Antimony, whereas common Fire and Salts do alter and destroy it; which truth we make good thus: Take xij grains of Antimony, either Mineral or Common, grind it into an impalpable Pouder, and calcine it in common Fire, or by Salt, it yeelds a smoaky Vapour of an unpleasant small and colour, which is heavy; for if this smoak was kept in a sublimatory Vessel, there would be found Flowers, which are nothing else by meteoriz’d Antimony, as we will make it plain when we come to speak of the Sublimation of this Mineral; which is the cause that the Antimony is found to be decreased of five or six grains, when the Calcination is driven and brought up to a gray or white Pouder, which has yet a purging and emetical quality: but if you calcine the same weight and proportion of Antimony with a Refracting or Burning Glass, which doth concentrate the Light of the Sun-beams to make it work upon the matter, which Mineral doth yeeld also Vapours, as when it is calcined by common fire; and consequently it were rational that it should decrease to the same proportion; but it happens otherwise, for the Calcination being often reiterated, and the Antimony turned into a white pouder, you shall find it to weigh xv grains instead of xij that were taken at first, and consequently it is encreased in double proportion almost, whereas the Vapours which it hath exhaled, should have decreased it as much: but that which is yet more to be admired, and less conceivable, is, that these xv grains of white Pouder, are neither vomitive nor purging, but contrariwise Diaphoretical and Cordial; which doth cast into admiration, not without reason, the most curious and intelligent searchers of Nature, and the wisest Physicians. But this Wonder shall cease as soon as we begin to apprehend and to know, that Light is that miraculous Fire which constitutes the principle of Antimony, and it is the same now that hath prepared it. By which it appears that this noble Mineral hath a kind of natural Magnes in it self, which makes it capable to attract from the highest Heavens this noble Kin and similar Light, by which it is produced and supplyed with its Vertue. This Solar Calcination is then performed in the following manner.
Let the Artist have a Burning Glass of three of four Diameter, made with two concave pieces of Glass joyned together, the two concavities within looking one towards another, the convexity without, and let there be a hole to fill up the concave space with clear Water; for this Glass will concentrate more beams, and calcine better, then if it was all of one piece, and broader in Diameter. The pieces must be well glued together with Ichthyocolla or Fish-glew, that the Water may not come out again; it also must be fitted upon a Pedestal or Foot, wherein is a Screw to raise and depress it according as occasion shall require; it must have moreover a pair of green Glass Spectacles to help the sight, and enable the Artist to lead the edges of the Sun-Beams upon the Antimony, and move it as it goes on calcining; otherwise the vivacious quickness of this light should impair and ruine the sight: place the Antimony upon a well polished Porphyry Stone very smooth,and have a grinding Stone ready at hand to grind it when it is turned into crums. The Antimony must be made into the subtilest Pouder that can be; and a great care must be taken in guiding the light, stirring the matter, and grinding it; and so proceed, till it be reduced into a white Pouder, which gathers it self no more into crums, neiter yeelds any smoak or exhalation when the Light is directed upon it, or when it is put upon a red glowing piece of Iron, which is an argument of its fixedness. The Stellat, or Starry Regulus, may much better be calcined in the common Antimony, and the Diaphoretick Remedy prepared therewith, shall prove much more efficacious and better. The Dosis may be from ij grains to xij, to be used in all the Diseases we have rehearsed above, and experience will make it manifest that this Remedy is comparably better, and of more excellency then the common Diaphoretick. The figure before annexed, will demonstrate all what belongs to this Operation, much more natively and plainely then our Pen can represent it; and so put we an end to the products of the dry Calcination of Antimony, and come to the moist Calcination, which is Precipitation.’
Nicaise Le Fèvre, A compleat body of chymistry (London, 1670), pp 215-7.
Le Fèvre explains what antimony is:
‘… Antimony doth first of all consist of a mineral Sulphur, partly very pure, and answering the nature of that of Gold, whose Foundation is in its redness, and if fixt; and it is in the Center of this Solar Sulphur that all the wonders of Antimony are placed; the other part of this Sulphur is impure, dissipable by fire, and volatile as common Brimstone; and to this Sulphur are commonly referred and attributed the violent raging Operations, when it is not well and duly corrected, or ill and negligently separated. Secondly, This Mineral is compounded of a metallick Mercury in abundance, which is nevertheless indigested and fuliginous; but yet more concocted and coagulated then Quick-silver, because it participates of the Saturnine Nature: finally, The third constituting part or principle of our Antimony, is a gross and earthly substance which it holds from its Matrix, containing very little of sensible Salt, though Salt was the first cause of its production: But the nature of it is changed, by reason of the several alterations and disguises it hath suffered by the Concoction and Digestion of its Centrical Fire.’
The use of antimony had been the centre of a major medical debate in mid sixteenth-century France: physicians such as Loys de Launay (fl. 1557-1566) had sought to popular its use but had met with strong opposition from the galenical Parisian Faculty of Medicine who in 1566 declared that it was poisonous. The fact that Paracelsus, the bête noire of the Parisian faculty, had written about it with approval did little to recommend to it to them for they rejected his theory that a poison could cure a poison. But despite this official judgment physicians across Europe were intrigued by its potential and antimony continued to generate controvery. Perhaps the most complete early modern exposition of the uses of antimony may be found in Basil Valentine’s Triumph Wagen Antimonii (Leipzig, 1604). Worth had Theodor Kerckring’s commentary on this famous, if controversial text: Commentarius in currum triumphalem antimonii Basilii Valentini : à se latinitate donatum (Amsterdam, 1671). That the subject was controversial was immediately addressed by Kerckring’s 1678 English translator who admitted that antimony had been ‘branded with the destestable Name of Poyson’ and that this might be because in some cases it could be dangerous ‘if taken without Preparation or being ill prepared (because of the much Evil mixt with its great Good) ‘tis more injurious than profitable to the Humane Body’. However, the dangers, once identified, were far outweighed by the many uses to which it might be put. That proponents of antinomy were beginning to win the early modern ‘antimony war’ may be seen in its increased use following a successful cure of Louis XIV in 1658.
Kerckring gives us an account of another method of calcination of antimony – not involving the sun:
‘Take Hungarian or other Antimony, the best you can get, grind it, if possible, to an Impalpable Powder; of this Powder spread Thin all over the Bottom of a Calcining Pan, round or square, which hath a Rim round about, the height of two Fingers thickness; set this Pan into a Calcining Fornace, and administer to it at first a very moderate Fire of Coals, which afterward increase gradually: when you see a Fume beginning to arise from the Antimony, stir it continually with an Iron Spatula, without ceasing, as long as it wall give forth from it self any Fume. If in Calcining, the Antimony melt, or concrete into Clots, then remove it from the Fire, and when cold again reduce it to a subtle Powder, and as before calcine it, continually stirring as we said, until no more Fume will ascend. If need be repeat this Operation so often and so long, as until that Antimony put into the Fire, will neither fume, nor concrete into Clots, but in Colour resemble White and pure Ashes: Then is the Calcination of Antimony right made.’
None of the experiments described here should be attempted.
Debus, Allen G. (2001), Chemistry and Medical Debate: Van Helmont to Boerhaave (Science History Publications).
Debus, Allen G. (2002), The French Paracelsians. The Chemical Challenge to Medical and Scientific Tradition in Early Modern France (Cambridge University Press).
Kerckring, Theodor (1671), Commentarius in currum triumphalem antimonii Basilii Valentini : à se latinitate donatum (Amstelodami). The translation used here is the 1678 London edition.
Le Fèvre, Nicaise (1670), A compleat body of chymistry … comprehending in general the whole practice thereof: and teaching the most exact preparation of animals, vegetables and minerals, so as to preserve their essential vertues … Rendred into English by P. D. C. Esq. … Part. I.[-The second part] With additions (London).