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The Alchemist’s Laboratory

The laboratory was a sanctuary for alchemists, where experimentation and discovery were pursued with passion. Hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, potash, and sodium carbonate were all discovered by alchemists as were the elements arsenic, antimony, and bismuth. Alchemists invented furnaces and apparatuses such as the tribikos and the kerotakis which were used for distillation. The practice of alchemy contributed to the development of the scientific method of inquiry.

Alchemy was discredited and declined in the seventeenth century as modern science emerged. Only centuries later was alchemy given proper credit for laying the foundation for chemistry, physics, and homeopathy.

Le filet d’Ariadne, pour entrer avec seureté dans le labirinthe de la philosophie hermetique. A Paris: Chez Laurent d’Houry, 1695.

This anonymous work is a treatise on the Philosopher’s Stone. Seen here is a list of common chemical symbols.

Giovanni Agostino Pantheo

Ars et theoria transmvtationis metallicæ cum Voarchadúmia, proportionibus, numeris, & iconibus rei accommodis illustrate. [S.l.]: Veneunt apud Viuantium Gautherotium in via Iacobea sub intersignio Sancti Martini, 1550.

Venetian priest, Giovanni Agostino Pantheo (1517–1535) wrote controversial works against “spurious” alchemy. This later edition was published posthumously. Seen here is a woodcut of an alchemist’s laboratory.

Martin Ruland

Lexicon alchemiæ, sive, Dictionarivm alchemisticvm: cum obscuriorum verborum, & rerum hermeticarum, tum Theophrast-Paracelsicarum phrasium, planam explicationem continens. [Francofurti]: Cura ac sumtibus Zachariæ Palthenii, 1612.

German physician and alchemist Martin Ruland (1532–1602) wrote this comprehensive and significant thesaurus of alchemical terms.

Fontanus Hortulanus

Fontani Hortulani, Fata chymica, in Beschreibung der wahren und falschen chymie: mit beygefügten acht raren Tractaetgen und zum Theil alten kostbahren Manuscriptis, bestehend: .... Cassel: Bey Johann Betram Cramer, 1740.

Little is known about Fontanus Hortulanus, his work Fata Chymica examines the true and the false about chemistry.

Probier–Buch. [S.l. : s.n., 17--?].

The practical theories of alchemy were used by artisans and craftsmen. Of particular interest are examples of the sixteenth-century German “how–to” books for the artisan describing the hardening, softening, and etching of steel, the assaying of precious metals, and the general techniques of casting, forging, and shaping metals. Notable among these “how to books” were the Probier büchlein which predate Agricola’s De Re Metallica and are quite scarce today. Seen here are furnaces, vessels, and other equipment which were used by alchemists and artisans.

Nicolas Guibert

Alchymia ratione et experientia ita demvm viriliter impvgnata & expugnata, vnâ cum suis fallacijs & deliramentis, quibus homines imbubinârat: utnunquam imposterum se erigere valeat. Argentorati: Impensis Lazari Zetzneri Bibliopolæ, 1603.

Nicolas Guibert (c.1547–c.1620) wrote two works against alchemy. Guibert argued that metals are like species, which cannot be transformed. He asserted that chemistry was different from alchemy. In this work he made a passing comment about alchemist Andreas Libavius, criticizing his belief in transmutation.

Andreas Libavius

D.O.M.A. Defensio et declaratio perspicva alchymiæ transmvtatoriæ, opposita Nicolai Gviperti Lotharingi Ph. Med. expugnationi virili. Vrsellis: Ex officina Cornelij Sutorij: sumtibus Petri Kopffij bibliopolæ, 1604.

German chemist, physician, and alchemist, Andreas Libavius (1555–1616) made several important chemical discoveries including methods for the preparation of ammonium sulfate, antimony sulfide, hydrochloric acid, and tin tetrachloride. He is well-known for the clarity of his writing. Among his many works is Die Alchemie (1597), which is considered to be the first chemistry textbook. Although he was against the mysticism and hidden aspects of alchemy, he believed in the transmutation of base metals into gold. Libavius wrote the work seen here in defense of alchemy, a response to Nicolas Guibert’s attack.

Robert Boyle

The Sceptical Chymist: or chymico–physical doubts & paradoxes, touching the experiments whereby vulgar spargirists are wont to endeavour to evince their salt, sulphur and mercury, to be the true principles of things. To which in this edition are subjoyn’d divers experiments and notes about producibleness of chymical principles. Oxford, Printed by Henry Hall for Ric. Davis, and B. Took, 1680.

Robert Boyle (1627–1691) is considered to be one of the founders of modern chemistry. He made important contributions to the laws of gases and developed the modern concepts of elements and compounds. The Sceptical Chymist rejects the theory of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water), discredits alchemy, and demands that chemistry be taken seriously as a scientific discipline.

Roger Bacon

Le miroir d’alqvimie de Rogier Bacon philosophe tres–excellent. A Lyon: Par Macé Bonhomme, 1557.

Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon (c.1214–c.1294) made many important contributions to modern science. Bacon proposes a prototype for the scientific method and includes his experiments with gunpowder, among the many other notable observations on a variety of diverse topics (e.g. medicine, optics, philosophy, astrology, mathematics, etc.) He was a student of the famous alchemist, the German Bishop Albertus Magnus. Many of Bacon’s alchemical writings were not published in his lifetime. “The Mirror of Alchemy” is his most significant alchemical work and seen here is the first edition, which was published in France in 1557.

Musaeum Hermeticum, reformatum et amplificatum: omnes sopho–spagyricae artis discipulos fidelissime erudiens: quo pacto summa illa veraque lapidis philosophici medicina, qua res omnes qualemcunque defectum patientes instaurantur, inveniri et haberi queat: Continens tractatus chimicos XXI. Francofurti; Lipsiae: [s.n.], 1749.

Seen here is an illustration of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican saint, influential philosopher and also a student of the famous alchemist, German Bishop Albertus Magnus. He is credited with writing several treatises on alchemy, in which he declares that alchemy is a true art and debates whether alchemical gold can be sold as real gold.

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