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Distillation was one of the most important chymical processes engaged in by the early modern chymist. It was a topic about which every chymist had a view and Worth’s academic and popular textbooks provide us with a wealth of information about the processes involved. For John Freind at Oxford distillation was ‘the Ascentuated Elevation of Particles, which afterwards descend again in the form of Drops’. Both Lémery and Wilson defined the process as being of two kinds: distillation ‘per ascensum… when the fire is put under the Vessel that contains the matter which is to be heated’ and ‘per descensum.. when the fire is placed over the matter that is to be heated’.
Lémery provides us with a number of plates of various instruments involved in distillation, with corresponding explanatory notes. His first table, illustrated below, was of a ‘fixt Reverberatory Furnace with one Retort’ and the key was as follows:
Lémery explains the process of the distillation of Guiaicum, one of the favourite treatments for syphilis in early modern Europe, as follows:
The Spirit of Guaiacum may be rectified by distilling it by an Alembeck, for to separate a little impurity that might have passed with it; it works by perspiration, and by Urine: the dose is from half a drachm to a drachm and a half. It is likewise used mixt with the waters of honey, to cleanse inveterate Ulcers.
You’l find in the Retort the coals of Guaiacum, which you may turn into ashes by putting fire to them, which they will soone take than other coals: Calcine these ashes some hours in a potters furnace, then make a Lixivium of them with water, which being filtered, evaporate it in a glass or earthen vessel in sand; there will remain the Salt of Guaiacum, which you may make white by Calcining it in a Crucible in a strong fire. This Salt is Aperitive, and Sudorifick; it may serve as all other Alkalis to draw the Tincture of Vegetables: the dose is from ten grains to half a drachm in some convenient liquor.
The earth, called Caput Mortuum, is good for nothing.
After this manner the five substances of all Vegetables may be drawn; but because the fire doth give them a loathsome Empyreumatical smell, other ways have been invented to draw the Oil of Aromaticks: I shall describe them in the sequel.
During the distillation of Spirits, you must not make the fire too strong, for they coming forth with a great deal of violence, would else be apt to break either the Retort or the Receiver.
Though the Guaiacum that is used be a very dry body, yet abundance of liquor is drawn from it; for if you put into the Retort four pounds of this Wood, at sixteen ounces to the pound, you’l draw nine and thirty ounces of Spirit and Phlegm, and five ounces and a half of Oil; there will remain in the Retort nineteen ounces of coals, from which you may draw half an ounce or six drachms of an Alkali salt.
The Oil of Guaiacum is acrimonious by reason of the Salts it has carried along with it; and it is the gravity of these salts that does precipitate it to the bottom of the water. The Oil of Box, and most others that are drawn this same way, do the like.
These sorts of Oil are good for the Tooth-ach, because they stop the nerve with their ramous parts, hindring thereby the air from entring. Moreover by means of the acrimonious salts which they contain they do dissipate a phlegm which uses to get within the gum, and causes the pain, but yet by reason of their fetid smell men have much ado to take them into their mouth.
That which is called Spirit of Guaiacum is nothing but a dissolution of the Essential salt of the Plant in a little phlegm.
The fixt salt is an Alkali that works much like others of that kind, nevertheless it is very probable that the fixt salts of Vegetables, let them be never so much Calcines, do always retain some particular virtue of the Plant they were drawn from.
If one would take the pains to Calcine the earth that remains, he would obtain a salt, though but very little of it.’
Lémery, Nicolas, A course of chymistry, pp 475-8.
Worth’s copy of Johann Rudolf Glauber’s Furni novi philosophici (Amsterdam, 1651) reminds us that different types of furnaces had specific methods of distillation. On the Furnaces webpage of this website may be found illustrations of a number of Glauber’s furnaces, including his second furnace, which was for combustible material. Glauber explains how this second furnace should be used:
In this manner all things, Vegetable, Animal, or Mineral, can be distilled in this furnace, and much better then by means of a Retort: especially such subtile spirits (as by the other way of distilling cannot be saved, but pass through the lutum) are got by this our way; and they are much better, then those heavy oyles, which commonly are taken for spirits, but are none, being only corrosive waters. For the nature and condition of a spirit is to be volatile, penetrating and subtle, and such are not those spirits of salt, Vitriol, Allome and Nitre, which are used in Apothecary shops, they being but heavy oyles, which even in a warm place do not evaporate or exhale.’
Glauber, A Description of new Philosophical Furnaces… set forth in English, by J. F.D.M. (London, 1651), pp 52-4.
Commentarius in currum triumphalem antimonii Basilii Valentini (Amsterdam, 1671), p. 179.
None of the experiments described here should be attempted.
Freind, John (1710), Praelectiones chymicae, in quibus omnes fere operationes chymicae ad vera principia et ipsius naturae leges rediguntur, Oxonii habitae …
(Amstelodami). The translation is from Chymical Lectures (London, 1712).
Glauber, Johann Rudolf (1651), Furni novi philosophici, sive, Descriptio artis destillatoriae novae; nec non spirituum, oleorum, florum, aliorumque medicamentorum illius beneficio … (Amsterdam). The translation used here is the 1651 English translation: A Description of new Philosophical Furnaces… set forth in English, by J. F.D.M. (London, 1651).
Lémery, Nicolas (1698), A course of chymistry, containing an easie method of preparing those chymical medicins which are used in physick. With curious remarks and useful discourses upon each preparation, for the benefit of such as desire to be instructed in the knowledge of this art (London).by