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Furnaces and Instruments

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Furnaces and Instruments

When Jacob Le Mort took over the chemical laboratory at the University of Leiden in 1690 on the death of Carel De Maets we are told that it contained the following items:

‘An Athanor. A large furnace with four vessels. A crucible. Three small ovens, one a digesting oven, the other two ovens for distillation. A large oven for distillation. A cupel pan. A cupola furnace. A bellows. A brass oven. A brass mortar. Two brass basins. A copper extinguisher. A pewter alembic with lid. Twelve spatula’s. Seven rings. Four bent iron rods. Three tongs. A shovel for ash. A vessel for alcohol and an alembic. Two barrels. Two length of pewter tubing. A large vessel for distillation. An alembic. Four containers. Four piercers. A table. A lectern. A sand chest. A built-in cupboard upstairs. A leather pail.’

  Van Spronsen, ‘The Beginning of Chemistry’ (1975).

Johann Rudolf Glauber, Furni novi philosophici (Amsterdam, 1651), plate 2.

This illustration is from Worth’s copy of Johann Rudolph Glauber’s Furni novi philosophici, sive, Descriptio artis destillatoriae novae (Amsterdam, 1651), one of the most famous texts on furnaces written in the early modern period. He explains the illustration as follows: ‘A’ represents the furnace and the iron distilling wheel, to which a receiver is applied; ‘B’ is the distiller himself, who takes off the lid with his right hand in order to put in his prepared material with his left; ‘C’ represents the external form of the distilling vessel and ‘D’ is a cross section of its interior; ‘E’ represents another distilling vessel, which stands directly on a fire, rather than been attached to a furnace.

Glauber had taught both Carel de Maets and Jacob Le Mort and it was the latter who taught Edward Worth during his sojourn at the University of Leiden. Glauber divided his book into an analysis of five sections dealing with different types of furnaces and instruments: the first dealt with incombustible material; the second with combustible items; the third concentrated on distilling ‘burning spirits’; the fourth introduced a cheaper type of furnace and the fifth investigated other types of instruments. The popularity of Glauber’s text is unsurprising as it is very much a practical manual that would have been of use to any budding chymist. Glauber was interested above all in providing practical information about how furnaces were constructed, how they worked and what chymical operations they should be used for.

As his discourse on the second furnace illustrated above makes clear, he started first and foremost by describing how the furnace was built and how distilling took place, before moving on to specific preparations. The following is his account of the structure of his second furnace. For Glauber’s advice on how to distill using this furnace see the distillation webpage.

The Structure of the Second Furnace

‘The Distilling vessel must be made of Iron, or good earth, such as can abide in the fire (whereof in the first part of this Book it shall be taught) and you may make it as big or as little as you please, according as your occasion shall require. That of Iron is most fit to be used for such spirits, as are not very sharpe or corroding, else they would corrode the vessel: but that of earth may be used for such thing, as shew their activity upon the Iron, and do make it to melt, as sulphur, Antimony, and the like; and therefore you ought to have two such vessels, viz. one of iron, and one of earth, to the end that for both sorts of materials (corrosive or not corrosive) you may have proper vessels, and fit furnaces for their distilling, and that they may not be spoiled by things contrary and hurtful to them. The shape of the vessel is shewed by the figure here annexed, viz. the lower part of it somewhat wider, then the upper part, and twice as high as wide; at the top having a hollow space between the two edges or brims, whereinto the edge of the lid may close and enter into an inch deep. The lid must have a ring or handle, by which it may be taken off and put on again which a paire of tongs. The lid must have a deepe edge answering to the hollow space aforesaid. The lower part must have three knobbs or shoulders thereby to rest upon the wall of the furnace; the form whereof is no other, then that of a common distilling furnace with sand Capel, as the figure of it doth shew: but if you will not have the furnace, then it needeth no knobbs or shoulders, if so be the distilling vessel be flat at the bottom, or else have leggs, for to stand upon them: Beneath the edge of the vessel there comes forth a spout or pipe of a span in length, and one or two inches wide, and somewhat narrower before then behinde, through which the spirits are conveighed into the Receiver.’*

Johann Rudolf Glauber, Furni novi philosophici (Amsterdam, 1651), plate 3.

By contrast, Glauber’s third furnace concentrated on copper and wood. His illustration for the third furnace presents us with a number of disparate images: in the top left of this image ‘A’ represents the ‘furnace with a Copper globe’; ‘B’ the Copper globe’ itself; ‘C’ the distilling vessel; ‘D’ the ‘refrigeratory with a worme’; ‘E’ the receiver’; and ‘F’ ‘stooles on which the vessels stand’. Beneath this structure we see two images: on the left ‘A Balneum with a cover having holes in it for the glasses, set upon a treefoot’. Beside it lies ‘a wooden vessel for the making of Beer’. To the right of these lie two types of bath: depicted above is ‘a Tub for a moyst Bath, which is to be warmed by the Copper Globe’; beneath this ‘a wooden Box for a dry Bath to provoke sweat with volatile spirits’.

Glauber explains how the third furnace is made in the following manner:

‘Now this Instrument is made of strong Copper plates after the following manner. You must make two strong hemispheares of Copper or latten of the bignesse of a mans head (or thereabout) and joine them together with a most strong soder, and that without tin, whereof the one must have a pipe: Now the pipe must be of a most exact roundnesse, that it may most accurately fit the hole that is made with a auger or wimble to keep the water from flowing out like to a tap, of the length of one span at least, wider on the hinder part towards the globe, then on the forepart, which also must bee according to the bignesse of the globe, greater or lesser, and be exactly joined with the best soder to its hemispheare, and the diameter of the forepart being very round like a tap, and most exactly filling the round hole must be of two fingers breadth. Now there is required to the foresaid instrument or globe a certain peculiar little furnace made of iron or copper, viz. most strong copper plates, covered within with stones or the best lute, into which is put that globe like a retort, so that it may lye upon two iron barrels of the distance of a span, or span and halfe from the grate; the work whereof (that pipe), goeth forth of the furnace one span at least. The furnace also must have below a place for the ashes, and above a cover with its hole for the letting forth of the smoke, and for regulating the fire, as you may see by the annexed figure. It must also below have a treefoot on which the furnace must be set, and on the side two handles by the help whereof it may be removed from place to place, the which is very necessary; for it is not only used for the distilling of turning spirits by wooden vessels instead of copper, but also for such distillation, and digestion that is performed in gourds, boltheads, and other instruments, of glasse, stone, copper, tin &C which are to be set in Balneo: also in the boyling of beer, methegline, wine, and other drinkes, which are to be performed by the help of wooden vessels.’*

Glauber’s comments on this third sort of furnace are important for the insight they give us of chymistry as a social enterprise: he explicitly draws attention to the fact this wooden type of furnace was easily constructed by the poor and less costly than its counterparts, even if the new type of distillation process required a longer, slower fire than that necessary for other furnaces.

Johann Conrad Barckhausen, Pyrosophia… (Leiden, 1698), p. 68.

Johann Conrad Barchusen’s Pyrosophia contained a section on metallurgy and, as Hannaway (1967) observes, this was concerned with assay techniques. Barchusen was, in effect, introducing techniques to the university curriculum of Utrecht which were well known among miners. Hannaway lists the second section of this metallurgy course as follows:

  1. The separation of gold form silver by means of aqua fortis.
  2. As above by means of aqua regia.
  3. Purification of gold by cementation.
  4. Purification of gold per antimonium.
  5. Purification of gold with mercury.
  6. Purification of silver with lead.

As Hannaway argues, by doing this Barchusen was trying to broaden the boundaries of chemistry to extend beyond iatrochemistry.

Sala furnace.

Angelo Sala, Opera medico-chymica quae extant omnia (Frankfurt, 1647), 4R1r.

Angelo Sala (1576-1637), is perhaps best known as an early exponent of the corpuscular philosophy. As Clericuzio (2000) makes clear, Sala used corpuscular theory to explain chemical reactions. As a court physician to the dukes of Mechlenburg-Güstrow, Sala set up a laboratory at Güstrow. Worth’s copy of his Opera medico-chymica quae extant omnia (Frankfurt, 1647) contains a number of illustrations of the equipment he owned. Worth’s copy of Sala’s work was the first collection of Sala’s texts, many of which had gone through numerous printings in various languages from 1608 onwards.

Sala instrument
Angelo Sala, Opera medico-chymica quae extant omnia (Frankfurt, 1647), 5D3r.

None of the experiments described here should be attempted.


Clericuzio, Antonio (2000), Elements, Principles and Corpuscles. A Study of Atomism and Chemistry in the Seventeenth Century (Kluwer).

Gelman, Zahkar E. (1994), ‘Angelo Sala, an iatrochemist of the late Renaissance’, Ambix, 41, (3), 142-160.

*Glauber, Johann Rudolph (1651), Furni novi philosophici (Amsterdam): the translation used here is the 1651 English translation: A Description of new Philosophical Furnacesset forth in English, by J. F.D.M. (London, 1651).

Hannaway, Owen (1967), ‘Johann Conrad Barchusen (1666-1723) – contemporary and rival of Boerhaave’, Ambix 14, 96-111.

Holmes, Frederick L. and Levere, Trevor H. (eds.) (2002), Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts).

Van Spronsen, J. W. (1975), ‘The Beginning of Chemistry’, in Lunsingh Scheurleer, Th. H. and Posthumus Meyjes, G. H. M. (ed.) Leiden University in the Seventeenth Century. An Exchange of Learning (Leiden), pp 329-343.

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