University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


The oldest method of producing chemically pure substances, distillation, is the most ancient of the techniques used in applied chemistry. Methods of distillation developed from those used four hundred years ago are used widely today. From the purification of acids to the production of perfumes, this chemical separation process is an integral part of procedures in chemistry and chemical engineering. This exhibition traces the development of the distillation process and apparatus.

The word "distillation" is used to describe the physical separation of a mixture, containing at least two compounds, into two or more parts. The compounds involved must have different vapor pressures at a given temperature, and therefore different boiling points. The application of heat causes the compound with the lower boiling point (higher vapor pressure) to begin evaporating first, leaving the compound with the higher boiling temperature behind. This evaporated fraction is recovered by cooling the vapors in order to condense the compound boiled out of the original mixture.

This principle has been applied to separation processes since antiquity, when perfumes, alcohols, and water were distilled. An example of a modern application of distillation is petroleum refining, where compounds such as gasoline, kerosene, and home heating oil are separated through the use of distillation. The pharmaceutical industry stimulated the greatest experimentation and variety of apparatuses, as chemists attempted to isolate and concentrate complex compounds as cures for illnesses. Distillation devices, or stills, were used by alchemists in their quest to transform base metals into gold. Alchemists pioneered the manufacture of acids, which bacame another important application of the distillation process. Later industrial production of acids involved the use of alembics often as large as an adult, such as the one depicted in William Y-Worth's The complete distiller, 1705.

Desalination is another use of distillation. Stephen Hale's treatise Instructions pour les mariniers, published in 1740 for sailors, demonstrates the importance of this process in areas without a sufficient supply of fresh water.

Over the centuries, apparatus used in this purification process has remained remarkably unchanged. A modern distillation column comsists of a space for contacting vapor and liquid streams, a source of heat to drive the separation process, and a cooler/condenser to recover the evaporated fraction. The main portion of the ancient apparatus was the alembic, which held the mixture to be heated and separated, while a retort was located in a cooler place to collect the evaporated products of the distillation process. The heating unit is an essential part of the chemical apparatus. In the Middle Ages, it consisted of a brick furnace or water bath, and this too has shown little change. Illustrations of furnaces in their earliest forms may be seen in the writings of Pietri Andrea Mattioli and Hieronymous Brunschwig. Later set-ups used cooling coils and vessels designed to capture fractions possessing different properties and compositions. Materials used in the construction of early stills were often rather crude, consisting of stone and rough metallic ores. Dramatic improvements came during the Renaissance as the glass industry in Italy flourished.

Distillation under reduced pressure was first described by Robert Boyle in The sceptical chemist, 1680, although the discovery of the vacuum pump dates from 1654. Otto von Guericke published his Experimenta nova, 1672, to document his discovery. Vacuum distillation permists the separation of compounds with very high boiling points to be carried our at much lower temperatures, thereby reducing the amount of heat needed to achieve separation.

Printing stimulated the exchange of knowledge at an increased rate. Andreas Libavius, credited with having written the first chemical textbook, Opera e dispersis passim optimum autorum, 1597, experimented in iatrochemistry (medical chemistry) and acids. The appearance of chemical textbooks and dictionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries attracted interest to applied chemistry. Nicholas Lémery, whose Cours de chymie, first published in 1675, went through many editions in various languages, was one of the leaders in early chemical education.

Technical illustrations help us to understand the procedures and equipment in use at a particular time. When viewing images of early apparatus, however, one must always keep in mind the possibility of inaccuracies or anachronisms. Several images depict apparatus which were never able to function as described in their accompanying text. In addition, illustrations were usually adapted to conform to modern procedures and formulae. For example, images appearing in editions of Raymond Llull and Joannes de Rupescissa, both Spaniards who lived in the Middle Ages, were in all likelihood modernized to correspond with procedures of their later publishers' time and country. Also, Summa perfectionis), the work of Jabir ibn Hayyan, or Geber as he was commonly known by Europeans, a twelfth-or thirteenth-century chemist, provides insight into medieval chemical knowledge, but the illustrations depict a seventeenth-century interpretation.

Checklist: EARLY WORKS

Jabir ibn Hayyan.
[Geber] Gebri, regis arabum philosophi perspicacissmi, summa perfectionis magisterii in sua natura.... Gedani: Apud Brunonem Laurentium Tancken, 1682. Bound with: Giovanni Braccesco. La espositione di Geber philosopho di misser Giouanni Bracescho.... In Vinetia: Appresso Gabriel Giolito di Ferrarii, 1544.

Dioscorides Pedanius, of Anazarbos.
Kräuterbuch des uralten unnd in aller Welt berühmtesten griechischen Scribenten Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei.... Issued with: H. Brunschwig Kunst zu destillieren, und dann dem heylsamen und vielfaltigen Gebrauch... Gedruckt zu Franckfurt am Mayn: Durch Erasinum Kempffern, verlegung Conrad Corthoys, 1614.

Llull, Ramón (d. 1315).
Sacri Doctoris Raymundi Lulii De secretis nature siue De quinta essentia libellus. [s.l.]: Excusum Auguste Vindelicoru[m], 1518.

------. Raimvndi Lvlii Maiorici, philosophi acutissimi, medici[que] celeberrimi.... Venetiis: Apud Petrum Schœffer, 1542.

"Liber de famulata philosophiæ de consideratione quintæ essentiæ." Manuscript, 14th century (Italy?). Attributed to Joannes de Rupescissa (fl. 1328-1365).

Joannes de Rupescissa (fl. 1328-1365).
De consideratione quintæ essentiæ rerum omnium. Basileæ: [s.n., 1561].

Hieronymus Brunschwig (ca. 1450-ca. 1512).
Liber de arte distulandi [sic] simplicia et composita.... Gedruckt zu Strassburg: Vo[n] Johan Grüniger, 1509.

-----. New vollkomen Distillierbuch.... Gedruckt zu Franckfurt am Mayn: Bey Christian Egenolffs Erben, 1597.

Philippus Ulstadius (fl. 1500-1550?).
Coelvm philosophorvm, sev, De secretis natvræ liber. Argentoragi: Arte & imprensa Iohannis Grienynger, 1526.

-----. Coelvm philosophorvm, sev, Secreta natvræ. Parisiis: Væneunt apud Viuantium Gaultnerot, 1543.

Vannuccio Biringucci (1480-1539?).
De la pirotechnia. [Veneto]: [s.n.], 1540.

Paracelsus (1493-1541).
Avreoli Theophrasti Paracelsi, summi philosophi ac medici.... Basileæ: Per Petrvm Pernam, 1573.

Georg Agricola (1494-1555).
Georgii Agricolæ De re metallica libri XII.... Basileæ: [Apvd Hieron Frobenivm et Nicolavm Episcopivm], 1556.

Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1500-1577).
Petri Andreæ Matthioli senensis medici.... Venetiis: Ex Officina Valgrisiana, 1565.

-----. L'arte distillatoria overo.... In Venetia: Presso Leonardo Pittoni, 1681.

Konrad Gesner (1516-1565).
Thesavrvs euonymi philiatri de remediis secretis. Tigvri: per Andream Gessnerum f., 1554.

-----. The newe iewell of health.... [London]: Printed at London by Henrie Denham, 1576.

-----. Qvatre livres des secrets de medecine.... A Roven: Chez Pierre Calles, 1616.

Jean Liébault (ca. 1535-1596).
Trois livres de l'embellissement et ornement dv corps humain
. A Paris: Chez Iacques du Puys, 1582.

Lazarus Ercker (d. 1594).
Beschreibung allerfürnemisten mineralischen Ertzt vnnd Berckwercks Arten.... [Prague]: Gedruckt zu Prag inn der Alten Stadt durch Georgen Schwartz, 1574.

Camillo Ferrara (fl. 1596).
Nvova selva di cirvgia: divisa in tre parti.... In Roma: Appresso Sulpitio Mancini, 1598.

Giambattista della Porta (1535?-1615).
Magiæ natvralis, sive, de miraculis rervm natvralium: libri IIII. Lugduni: apud Gul. Rovillium, 1569.

-----. Io. Bapt. Portæ Neapolitani Magiæ natvralis: libri XX. Neapoli: Apud Horatium Saluianum, 1589.

-----. Io. Bap. Portæ Neapolitani De distillatione lib. IX. Romæ: ex typographia Reu. Cameræ Apostolicæ, 1608. Bound with: Ioan. Baptistæ Portæ Neapolitani De mvnitione libri III. Neapoli: Apud Io. Iacobum Carlinum, & Co[n]stantinum Vitalem, 1608.

Girolamo Rossi (1539-1607).
Hieronymi Rubei Ravenn. De destillatione liber.... Ravennæ: Ex typographia Francisci Thebaldini, 1582.

Andreas Libavius (d. 1616).
Alchymistische Practic, das ist, von künstlicher Zubereytung der vornembsten chymischen Medicinen.... Getruckt zu Franckfort am Mayn: Bey Johann Saurn in Verlegung Petri Kopffen, 1603.

-----. Alchymia Andreæ Libavii, recognita, emendata, et aucta, tum dogmatibus & experimentis nonnullis.... Francofvrti: Excudebat Joannes Saurius, impensis Petri Kopffii, 1606.

----. Syntagmatis selectorvm vndiqvaqve et perspicve traditorvm alchymiæ ar canorum. Francofvrti: Excudebat Nicolaus Hoffmannus, impensis Petri Kopffii, 1613-1615.

Otto von Guericke (1602-1686).
Ottonis de Guericke experimenta nova (ut vocantur) magdeburgica de vacuo spatio primùm à R.P. Gaspare Schotto.... Amstelodami: Apud Joannem Janssonium à Waesberge, 1672.

Johann Rudolf Glauber (1604-1670).
Furni novi philosophici, sive, Descriptio artis destillatoriæ novæ.... Amsterodami: prostant apud Joannem Janssonium, 1651. Six volumes bound in one.

-----. La description des novveavx fovrneavx philosophiqves.... A Paris: Chez Thomas Iolly, 1659.

Johann Sigismund Elsholtz (1623-1688).
Jo. Sig. Elsholtii Destillatoria curiosa, sive, Ratio ducendi liquores coloratos per alembicum.... Berolini: Typis Rungianis, impensis Ruperti Volcheri, 1674. Bound with: Jacobi Gaffarelli Curiositez inovyes, hoc est: Curiositates inauditæ de figvris persarum talismannicis.... Hamburgi: Apud Gothofredum Schultzen, et Janosnio Waesbergios, 1676.

Robert Boyle (1627-1691).
The sceptical chymist. Oxford: Printed by Henry Hall for Ric. Davis, and B. Took, 1680.

Donato d'Eremita (fl. 1624).
Dell 'elixir vitæ: libri qvattro. In Napoli: Per Secondino Roncagliolo, 1624.

John French (1616?-1657).
The Art of distillation. London: Printed by R. Cotes, and are to be sold by T. Williams, 1651.


Andreas Libavius (d. 1616).
Alchemia Andreæ Libavii...Operâ e dispersis passim optimorum autorum, veterum & recentium exemplis potissimum. Francofurti: Excubedat Iohannes Saurius, impensis Petri Kopffii, 1597. Issued with: D.O.M.A. Commentationvm metallicarvm libri qvartvor de natvra metallorvm.... Francofvrti ad Moenvm: In officina typographica Iohannis Saurij, impensis Petri Kopffij, 1597.

William Johnson (fl. 1562-1678).
Lexicon chymicum. Londini: Excudebat G.D. impensis Gulielmi Nealand, 1652-1653.

Nicolas Lémery (1645-1715).
Cours de chymie: contenant la maniere de faire les operations qui sont en usage dans la medecine, par une methode facile.... A Paris: Chez l'autheur, rue Galande, proche la place Maubert, 1677.

-----. Cours de chymie: contenant la maniere de faire les operations qui sont en usage dans la médecine, par une méthode facile.... A Paris: Chez Laurent-Charles d'Houry fils..., 1756.

Pierre Joseph Macquer (1718-1784).
Elemens de chymie theorique. A Paris: Ch'es Jean-Thomas Herissant, 1749.

-----. Dictionnaire de chymie.... A Paris: Chez Lacombe, 1766.

"Chymie, contenant vignt-cinq planches, vingt-quatre simples et un double". Excerpt from L'Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers. 1762-1777.

Andrew Ure (1778-1857).
A dictionary of chemistry. London: Printed for T. & G. Underwood [and 6 others], 1821.

James Curtis Booth (1810-1888).
The encyclopedia of chemistry, practical and theoretical.... Philadelphia: H. C. Baird, 1854, c. 1850.

Exhibit Home | Introduction | Applications

Return to Special Collections | Return to Exhibitions
for reference assistance email Special Collections
or contact:

Special Collections, University of Delaware Library
Newark, Delaware 19717-5267
(302) 831-2229

  • UD Library Special Collections  •   181 South College Avenue  •   Newark, DE 19717-5267  •   USA
    Phone: USA +1 302-831-2229  •   ©2014