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The purification of alcohols is probably the oldest application of distillation. The alcohol produced from the distillation of rice, wheat, sorghum, and potatoes, known as ethanol today, was called "aqua ardens" or "aqua vitae" in ancient times. Distillation is also used to separate other alcohols such as methanol (wood alcohol) and isopropanol (rubbing alcohol). Methanol is the main ingredient in windshield washer fluid and dry gas. The separation procedure of wood alcohol is described by Robert Boyle in The sceptical chemist, 1680, and by L. F. Hawley in Wood distillation, 1923.

The production of ethanol from potatoes had a great influence upon the design of distilling apparatus. Ethanol was essential to the manufacture of perfumes and many drugs, and was also used for consumption and ceremonial purposes. Joannes de Rupescissa characterized "aqua vitae rectificata," or ethanol, as the fifth essence, which complemented water, fire, air, and earth. His De consideratione quintae essentiae rerum omnium reflects fourteenth-century understanding of the liquid, which was also known as burning water, water of wine, and acid water. In the eighteenth century, production on an industrial scale required dramatic enlargement of the apparatus.

Sir Hugh Plat (1552-1611?).
The jevvel house of art and nature. London: Printed by Bernard Alsop, 1653.

William Y-Worth.
The compleat distiller. London: Printed for J. Taylor, 1705.

Godfrey Smith (18th Cent.).
A compleat body of distilling.... London: Printed for H. Lintot, 1731.

-----. The practical distiller. London: Printed for B. Lintot, 1734.

Peter Shaw (1694-1763).
Essays for the improvement of arts, manufactures, and commerce, by means of chemistry. London: Printed for T. Longman, R. and J. Dodsley, 1761.

Jacques-François Demachy (1728-1803).
L'art du distillateur liquoriste. [Paris: s.n.], 1775.

Samuel Morewood.
A philosophical and statistical history.... Dublin: W. Curry and W. Carson, 1838.

Pierre Lacour.
The manufacture of liquors, wines, and cordials.... New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, [1853].


The development of perfumes and cosmetics began with the manufacture of rose water and extracts of herbs or flowers for medicinal use. Perfume production remained a small-scale industry in the apothecary or laboratory for centuries. Scented oils were normally separated from leaves or petals of plants by means of distillation. Mixtures of alcohols, water, vinegar, and other substances were used to extract scents, colors, and other compounds from various herbs and flowers. Distillation was then used to separate and concentrate the desired compounds.

Books on perfumes began to appear early in the sixteenth century. Isabella Cortese's I secreti , for example, was published in 1561 at Venice. The history of perfumes in France has been closely intertwined with the political history of that country: the fortunes of the industry fluctuated according to the interest of the reigning monarch. Simon Barbe's Le parfumeur François,, was first published in 1693, although at the end of the seventeenth century Louis XIV banned perfumes from the court, citing their odor as the cause of his frequent headaches. The manufacture and use of perfumes in France resumed in the eighteenth century when Louis XV ascended the throne. Recipes were frequently included in printed works, such as Pierre Joseph Buc'hoz's Toilette et laboratoire de flore, 1784. According to the fashion of the period, hair powders, linens and soaps were also scented.

Isabella Cortese.
I secreti de la signora Isabella Cortese: ne' qvali si contengono cose minerali.... Venetia: Appresso Giouanni Bariletto, 1574.

Johann Moritz Hoffmann (1653-1727).
De odoramentis et svffimentis. [Altdorffii]: Literis Henrici Meyeri, [1686].

Simon Barbe.
Le parfumeur françois qui enseigne toutes les manieres de tirer les odeurs des fleurs.... Lyon: H. Barital, I. Gverrier, I. Lyons, 1698.

Pierre Joseph Buc'hoz (1731-1807).
Toilette et laboratoire de flore. A Paris: Chez l'Auteur, 1784.

Polycarpe Poncelet (ca. 1720-ca. 1780).
Chimie du gout et de l'odorat. A Paris: de l'imprimerie de P. G. le Mercer, 1755.

D. J. Fargeon.
L'art du parfumeur. Paris: chez Delalain fils, 1801.

Le parfumeur royal: contenant les procédés les meilleurs et les plus expéditifs pour la distillation et l'infusion.... A Paris: Chez J. Moronval, 1818.

Arnold J. Cooley.
Instructions and cautions respecting the selection and use of perfumes.... London: R. Hardwicke, 1868.

George William Piesse (1820-1882).
The art of perfumery, and the methods of obtaining the odors of plants.... London: Piesse and Lubin, 1891.


In the sixteenth century, mercury, or quicksilver, was commonly distilled from ore by "destillatio per descensum." This process was accomplished by placing ores, the substances which were to be separated, in a heated pot. The distillate, mercury, then dripped down into another pot placed in a lower position. Another procedure, "destillatio per ascensum," used alembics with long spouts to sublime mercury from ores. A variant of "destillatio per ascensum" used a large chamber in which the mercury was condensed on "branches" and dripped to the chamber floor for collection. Examples of these three methods are illustrated in Georg Agricola's De re metallica, 1556. Similar methods for the manufacture of mercury are employed by Vannuccio Biringucci in De la pirotechnia, 1540, and by Lazarus Ercker in Beschreibung allerfurnemisten minerlaischen Ertzt vnnd Berckwercks Arten, 1574.


Nitric acid was the first acid to be produced on an industrial scale. Vannuccio Biringucci provided the earliest useful definition in his De la pirotechnia, 1540. In the sixteenth century, nitric acid, or "aqua regia," was made by distilling a mixture of vitriol, sodium chloride, alum, nitre, and often bricks. Glass containers were placed in furnaces, while the receivers were placed at a lower level. Agricola demonstrates this procedure in De re metallica, as does Ercker, who provides numerous illustrations of this process in Beschreibung allerfurnemisten minerlaischen Ertzt vnnd Berckwercks Arten.

The process for manufacture of sulfuric acid developed from vitriol works, and coincides with that of the mining and metallurgy industries in Europe. Vitriol is a name given to sulfuric acid and to sulfates of various metals because of its glassy appearance. Agricola also described the distillation of sulphur from mixtures of ores and sulphur, the ore being distilled in pots with alembics, pairs of which deliver into one receiver with a hole at the bottom, allowing the sulphur to flow into forms. Biringucci employed similar methods for the manufacture and refining of sulphur and mercury. The process remained on a small, laboratory scale.

Andreas Libavius was the first writer to mention hydrochloric acid, although a complete description of its manufacture did not appear until the writings of Johann Rudolf Glauber in the seventeenth century. In Libavius's time, hydrochloric acid, or "spiritus saltus," was made by burning salt and vitriol together in an iron retort. Glauber refined the process by heating zinc chloride with sand in an iron retort.


The manufacture of vinegar, or dilute acetic acid, dates from ancient time, and began as a separate industry in France in the seventeenth century. Ordinary vinegar was of use to alchemists as it was able to dissolve certain materials. They were unable to produce pure acetic acid, though by distillation they succeeded in producing more concentrated solutions. Wood vinegar, produced from the dry distillation of wood, is manufactured for use in pure acetic acid production and as an antiseptic, although it lacks the properties which make ordinary vinegar palatable. Originally known as "sour wine," ordinary vinegar has served many functions in the perfume and pharmaceutical industries as well.

Charles Mayer Wetherill (1825-1871).
The manufacture of vinegar.... Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1860.

Émile Claudon.
Fabrication du vinaigre fondée sur les études de M. Pasteur. Paris: F. Savy, 1875.

William Theodore Brannt (b. 1844).
A practical treatise on the manufacture of vinegar and acetates.... Philadelphia: H. C. Baird, 1890, [c. 1889].


The German chemist, Johann Rudolf Glauber, discovered sodium sulfate as a product of the distillation of green vitriol and alum. Recipes for this compound appear in Glauber's Furni Novi Philosophici. Today, sodium sulfate is still known as Glauber's salt, and is commonly used as a mild laxative. Glauber refined alchemical techniques to conduct experiments which today fall under the category of applied chemistry.


The production of sugar from sugar beets requires distillation, though it is used for a different purpose in this process. Sugar is first soaked from the beet in liquid form. Next the resulting juice is purified, concentrated by evaporative distillation, and crystallized. (This is the modern procedure, although it has changed little in the past two centuries.) In most distillation processes, the desired products are those which are boiled off from the initial mixture. In the case of sugar, however,it is the impurities which are boiled away, while the heavier sugar is left behind.
European production of sugar increased tremendously at the end of the eighteenth century, when the supply of sugar-cane from the West Indies was limited. Napoleon tried to compensate for this by promoting the development of industrial distillation apparatus which would accommodate sugar beets. Sugar was also distilled from grapes during this period, as seen in Antoine Vallée's Traité élémentaire sur le sucre de raisin, 1808

Antoine Vallée.
Traité élémentaire sur le sucre de raisin: sa fabrication.... A Paris: Chez D. Colas, 1808.

Nicholas P. Burgh.
A treatise on sugar machinery. London: E. and F. N. Spon, 1863.

Comité Central des Fabricants de Sucre de France.
Histoire centennale de sucre de betterave. Paris: Fortier et Marotte, 1912.


The manufacture of soap was developed by the Arabs and refined by Europeans during the Renaissance. Soaps are made by the reaction of an alkali, such as sodium hydroxide, with fatty acids. The products of this reaction are the metallic salts of fatty acids, commonly known as soap and glycerin. Distillation is used to separate and purify the fatty acids, the key ingredient in the soap-making process. Although soap was known in antiquity, it appeared in a form similar to today's bar or cake in the eighteenth century. Jean D'Arcet's Rapport sur la fabrication des savons, 1795 was one of many eighteenth-century treatises on the manufacture of soap. The soap industry has always been closely tied to that of perfumes, as strong scents are necessary to camouflage the odor of fatty acids.

Jean d'Arcet (1725-1801).
Rapport sur la fabrication des savons. A Paris: De l'Imprimerie de R. Vater et Ass. ..., [1795].

Hippolyte Dussauce (d. 1869)
Technical drawings and manuscripts from the papers of Hippolyte Dussauce.

William Theodore Brannt (b. 1844).
A practical treatise on the manufacture of soap and candles.... Philadelphia: H. C. Baird & co., 1888.

Petroleum and Tar

Although tar and pitch are mentioned in chemical literature as early as the sixteenth century, it was not until the eighteenth century that distillation was applied to this industry. Tar and pitch are obtained from the destructive distillation of coal, wood, petroleum, peat, and certain other organic materials. In the eighteenth century, distillation took place in copper stills where the tar was mixed with water and heated. Distillates such as "pine-oil" were boiled off, leaving the tar behind to be concentrated to the proper consistency. Wood-tar pitch was of use to home and ship builders of the time. Tar had little effect on the growth of the distillation industry.

Evidence of the existence of petroleum dates back at least four thousand years, when it was used as an asphaltic mortar in Babylon. Later it was used to fuel lamps and fires, although it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that some resemblance to the modern petroleum industry began. An iron still is supplied with crude oil, and "distilled without steam until the residue in the retort is of the consistence of a thick pitch when cold." If oil is the desired product, steam is added to this process to continue the separation. In his treatise entitled Petroleum and its products, A. Norman Tate provides insight into the industry in 1868.

Stephen Hales (1677-1761).
Instructions pour les mariniers.... A Le Haye: Chez Pierre Paupie, 1740.

M. DéJean pseud. [Antoine Hornot].
Traité raisonné de la distillation.... A Paris: Chez Nyon fils...Guillyn, 1753.

Jacques-François Demachy (1728-1803).
L'art du distillateur d'eaux fortes. [Paris: s.n.], 1773.

L'art du distillateur.... A Paris: Chez Levacher, 1809. Two volumes bound in one.

Johann G. Tenner (1748-1811).
Anleitung, vermittelst der dephlogistisirten Salzsäure.... Leipzig: Bey Voss und Comp., 1800.

Henri Decremps (1746-1826?).
Diagrammes chimiques, ou recueil de 360 figures.... Paris: Carilian-Goeuri, 1823.

L.-Séb Le Normand.
L'art du distillateur des eaux-de-vie et des esprits. Paris: Bachelier, 1824.

Augustin Pierre Dubrunfaut (1797-1881).
Traité complet de l'art de la distillation.... Paris: Bachelier, 1824.

Anselme Payen (1795-1871).
Précis de chimie industrielle à l'usage des écoles préparatoires.... Paris: L. Hachette et Cie, 1851.

-----. Traité complet de la distillation.... Paris: Ve. Bouchard-Huzard, 1861.

A. Norman Tate.
Petroleum and its products. London: J. W. Davies; Liverpool: H. Greenwood, 1863.

Edmund Mills (b. 1840).
Destructive distillation: a manualette of the paraffin, coal tar, rosin oil.... London: John Van Voorst, 1886.

Eimer & Amend.
Illustrated catalogue of chemical apparatus, assay goods and laboratory supplies
. New York: The Company, 1907.

Lee Fred Hawley (b. 1882).
Wood distillation. New York: The Chemical Catalog Company, inc., 1923.

As this survey of distillation suggests, the literature of chemical separations is a movement from early works describing accidental discoveries to technical treatiseson industrial processes. The earliest works trace production processes for medicines, alcohol, perfumes, and acids, many of which were discovered accidentally in the alchemists' quest for gold. As applied chemistry developed, early scientists refined their efforts and focused their attention on purifying known products and perfecting manufacturing techniques. This focusing was reflected in late Renaissance publications, when texts began to be devoted to a single topic, such as perfumes. As the scale of production increased, so did the size of the apparatus necessary to supply the growing demand for both common and exotic products, with modern distillation apparatuses often reaching a height of several stories. Distillation processes are an integral part of most chemical manufacturing processes, from petroleum and plastics to pharmaceuticals, all of which may be traced back to ancient origins.

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