When I was a teen, I was fascinated by alchemy — not so much the whole turning lead into gold part or trying to play God and create tiny little humans in a jar. I was really attracted to the labware, the furnaces, the study of the physical and natural world and its processes — basically, the parts of alchemical practice that lead to modern chemistry. Professor William Newman, a historian of science at Indiana University, was equally fascinated by the lab procedures of alchemists. So much so, he created a 17th century alchemy lab at his home, including a replica of Sir Isaac Newton’s alchemical furnace in his back yard. He used their notebooks to recreate many of their experiments. Not surprisingly, he discovered “that alchemists were not just tinkering blindly—they produced ‘A solid body of repeated and repeatable observations of laboratory results.'” He’s co-authored a book on his experiences, Alchemy Tried In The Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry.

Retrying 17th century alchemy

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy person’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

  • Rahere

    This is indeed a fundamental work, but rather on chemystry than alchemy as such. In any case, readers are strongly advised against the early grimoires as they tend to lead the unsuspecting towards some nasty activities of the sort which get you locked up for a very long time, through practices designed to keep the author’s secrets secret.
    The base-line of Jan van Helmont concerns a paracelsian quack doctor on the outskirts of Brussels. An evening discussion in 1618 with an unknown visitor believed to be the alchemist behind the Hoornes/Egmont execution in 1568, one Nicholas Cerlaers, led to the most remarkable experimental write-up on record: “My father took 8oz of mercury, added the red powder the stranger left him, and sealed it in a clay pot, which he put in the hearth fire. fifteen minutes later, he lifted it from the embers with the firetongs, which slipped, and the crucible broke on the hearth stones. Inside was eight ounces of assayable gold.”
    van Helmont did not attempt alchemy from that, what he did attempt was to understand the chemical reaction which had taken place, and as that had breached several laws of paracelsian chemistry, he threw the lot out and started over, working from empirical observation. That was his key contribution, together with the first steps of organic chemistry.
    Newman then makes a case for the experiments of George Starkey in the early colonies developing the empiricism towards the work of Boyle. However, van Helmont’s son Franz Mercurius was also very influential as Leibnitz’ mentor, and Boyle also worked directly from van Helmont’s own publications.
    Newman’s modern work is part of a huge project undertaken by University College London, Johns Hopkins, Imperial College, the Wellcome Institute and a goodly number of others to review Chemystry as a freemasonic commodities company has succeeded in making considerable headway on the question of the elixir of life. The older claims are probably unfounded, as the equipment used by Cerclaers and possibly Flamel before him was particular to Brussels from c1307 onwards, which is why Rudolph II’s Prague experiments sponsoring madmen like Dee in rivalry to Phillip II’s 1560 experiments got nowhere.