Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

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Alchemy, Chemistry, and Metallurgy

  • Hjalmar ForsEmail author
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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_468-1
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Alchemy, Chemistry, and Metallurgy

Early Modern Matter Theory and the Metals

For early modern people who lived in a world assumed to have been created at the beginning of time by a divine Creator, it made a lot of sense to assume that natural objects existed in finite sets. God created a finite number of animals, plants, oceans, and continents as a stage, as it were. When the stage was built and the props arranged, the drama of Salvation could be played out. Speaking in very general terms, the metals known since classical antiquity, i.e., gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, lead, and mercury, were just minor stage props in this drama. But they, too, were part of it. They served as metaphors for the development of the human soul in its progression from coarse lead to purest gold. Of course, the metals were also integrated into large-scale explanatory models of how the world functioned and how its parts interacted. Today, such models are called scientific. In early modern times, they were usually considered a part of natural philosophy.

The seven known metals corresponded to the seven wandering heavenly bodies, a group which included the sun and the moon, but not the Earth itself. Such correspondences were further reinforced through symbolic imagery and mythology. The sun was of course gold, and both planet and metal were symbolized by a circle with a point in its middle. Silver was connected to the moon and symbolized by its well-known sickle-shaped crescent. The metal mercury still has the same name as the planet. The alchemical sign for mercury designated both and connected them to the Graeco-Roman god Hermes/Mercury. Similar correspondences existed for other metals, planets, and appropriate deities. The doctrine of correspondences was, however, not the only model used by early moderns to comprehend the nature of minerals and metals. The four Aristotelian elements, i.e., fire, air, water, and earth, were another important framework. They sufficed to explain most material transformations taking place on earth. A metal consisted of an overwhelming part of earthly matter. But the theory stipulated that all objects on Earth were a mixture of elements. Therefore, metals also contained small amounts of fire, water, and air. Smelting and refining, the process of obtaining metal from ore, could be explained in one of two ways. Either it was a process of creation, or transmutation, through which the metal was created from the ore through the addition or subtraction of elemental matter, or it was a process of extraction, through which a preexisting amount of metal was brought out from a mixture of various forms of earthly matter. The main agent behind this transformation was fire, which acted as a dissolvent. Such basic explanatory models went a long way to explain perceived phenomena and sufficed for most. However, more serious students of the transformations of matter chose instead to rely on one specific passage from Aristotle, as expounded in early Arabic alchemical texts. This so-called sulfur-mercury theory did a much better work to explain phenomena that actually happened in mines, furnaces, and crucibles than the simple application of the four-element theory.

Aristotle implied that metals were not composed directly from the four elements, but from two intermediate substances, which would be called sulfur and mercury. In order to appreciate early modern understanding of these substances, it is necessary to first forget the present-day conception of chemical elements. We must acknowledge that our present models and terms do little to help us to understand the meanings that these terms held for early moderns. Firstly, neither sulfur nor mercury was conceived of as elemental. Each was composed from a specific mixture of the four elements. Secondly, they should be seen not as elemental atomic building blocks in a modern sense but as more akin to the four elements themselves. Sulfur was a type of dry, earthy matter which was heavily pregnant with fire, and when provoked, it would become an air and make its presence known through its powerful stench and yellow color. Mercury was a kind of water easily distinguished from other waters through its great weight and metallic color. When the two were combined underground in the correct way, the watery mercury solidified through the action of the sulfur’s fiery vapors, and stable metals and ores were formed. In this way was the stage set for subsequent developments in Western matter theory. The theory also became seminal for European alchemy, or maybe rather chymistry (for explanation, see below), the investigative path that would dominate European natural philosophical investigation of metals and ores throughout most of the period.

The sulfur-mercury model would keep its appeal as an explanatory framework until about the second half of the eighteenth century, although later thinkers would elaborate and make changes to it in various ways. However, a strong competitor was developed by Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus. He posited that all material change – that of minerals included – happened due to the interaction of the tria prima, the three Paracelsian principles of salt, sulfur, and mercury. Paracelsians abandoned the four elements but nevertheless shared two important premises of investigators working with the sulfur-mercury theory. The first of these premises was that there existed a small and finite number of underlying elements, or principles of matter, from which all material forms were created. The second premise was that there also existed one or several intermediate layers, stages, or principles. These intermediates were the means through which underlying principles were transformed into perceptible material forms. It was the second premise that turned the theory into a practical, investigative path. The reason was that it was assumed that the intermediate principles could be unveiled, perceived, and possibly manipulated. The preferred method to do this was to engage in laboratory work.

The above overview may give the impression that early modern investigations into the material world and matter theory were essentially static and derivative of classical sources. It was not so. With regard to their engagement with practical investigation into metals, investigators delved deeply into and learned many things about what they considered the intermediate layers of chemical composition that they encountered in their laboratory work. They gradually accumulated a vast knowledge bank of chemical composition and transformation, as well as of metallic substances such as zinc, bismuth, and antimony. A special position was often also assigned to mercury. As it was given a role in the generation of other metals, it was often not included in the list of regular metals, reducing their number to six.

Indeed, alchemy, especially during the early modern period, was a dynamic and constantly evolving knowledge tradition. It could serve as a vehicle for political and economic ambition, and oftentimes, it overlapped and was intermixed with millennialism, magical beliefs, and mysticism. It was more often than not cloaked in elaborate allegory and secrecy. This, however, did not set it apart from most other expressions of early modern thought and activity. Elaborate allegory was equally prominent in architecture, poetry, and art. Craftsmen and artisans guarded their secret knowledge and tricks of the trade with a fervor equaling or surpassing that of alchemists. Millennialism was a recurrent phenomenon throughout the period. Magical and mystical thought were mainstays – indeed, integral parts – of early modern culture. Simultaneously chrysopoeia, the transmutation of more common metals into gold, was, as we have seen, a perfectly rational proposition, given the then current theories of natural philosophy. Hence, the singling out of alchemy as a superstitious, irrational, and impossible enterprise is unfair. It is also, at least for the early modern period, historically incorrect.

In many important ways, alchemy was the direct precursor of contemporary chemistry. Pointing out that the present-day distinction between alchemy and chemistry is an invention of the eighteenth century which actually obscures the historical reality of early modernity, some historians have therefore proposed that the terms should be scrapped when discussing the early modern period. Instead, these scholars propose that the term chymistry should be used for both, as a joint enterprise. The term chymistry, hence, designates natural historical investigations into matter, practical chemical work, and innovation, as well as chrysopoetic (gold-making) practices during the early modern period (Newman and Principe 1998). Although the antiquated spelling of the word chymistry can be found in historical sources, chymistry should primarily be taken as an analytical term, created to make it possible for historians to sidestep the associations and contemporary meanings of both chemistry and alchemy. Thus, it helps us to examine and interpret historical sources in a less biased way.

At the Mines and Smelting Works

Aristotle’s Meteorologia connected the appearance of minerals to subterranean sulfurous exhalations, driven by fires deep in the bowels of the Earth. In the sixteenth century, authors such as Vannoccio Biringuccio, Paracelsus, Georgius Agricola, and Johannes Mathesius introduced mining knowledge as a topic of scholarly investigation. The works of these authors are often considered foundational to modern geology and metallurgy. But terminology can be confusing. Geology, although certainly the culmination of a long-term process of redefining the Earth in scientific terms, was essentially a nineteenth-century creation. And metallurgy, even today, is to a large extent a practical endeavor which is very difficult to predict and explain through scientific theorizing. When talking about early earth sciences, it is best to approach theories of subterranean geography and mineral generation with a certain caution. It is difficult to ascertain to what extent they gave voice to practical knowledge that authors had learned at mines and mining works or whether they presented theories of their own making, based on the works of other scholars.

Nevertheless, it seems that practical miners did not consider the metal-generating principle a theoretical construct. To them, there existed a real fluid, often described as similar to buttermilk, and could be found in proximity to metalliferous ores. It was this ghur that transformed into metals under the influence of heat and water (Alfonso-Goldfarb and Ferraz 2013). Albeit generation of metals could be described in causal, mechanical terms such as those above, the chosen terminology was often organic. Miners painstakingly forced narrow tunnels and pockets of air into existence in a world which predominantly was made up of fluid and solid matters. Like plants and animals, metal grew and developed through a mysterious or at least unknown process. Just as in an animal or human body, metals, ores, and softer rocks were the bones, meat, and fat of the earth. They were solid matter generated through the circulation of fluids and vapors. To find the choicest parts, the metalliferous veins was an advanced practical art, practiced in the light of torches and oil lamps in a dark, narrow, and highly dangerous environment, that dripped with corrosive fluids. There, a hidden treasure could suddenly appear in the walls, or a previously rich vein could suddenly come to nothing, immediately throwing a whole city, or mining region, into decline. Little wonder that many early modern miners considered the real owners of the mines to be preternatural entities, who could hide or reveal metalliferous ores at their fancy. Paracelsus incorporated such beings in an all-encompassing worldview. Metals grew in the womb of the earth through a natural process but were tended to by earth elementals, preternatural beings, whose divinely ordained task was to reveal mineral resources to mankind in the divinely ordained moment of time, thus contributing to the decline and/or emergence of different peoples and regions on the world stage (Fors 2015).

Furthermore, ore, the product of the mines, was not fully formed. Early smelters had to finish the work begun by nature: crushing, sifting, washing, roasting, and smelting the ore. This process required constant tending and attention and involved all kinds of machines, roasting pits and furnaces, and above all fire –the foremost tool of chymical transformation. For those who had empirical knowledge of mining and smelting, it would seem a foregone conclusion that metals were indeed manufactured through these processes. There was room for improvement, and travelling chymist, smelting experts, and similar project makers were much in demand at European smelting works. Although it is difficult to generalize about to what extent theories were grounded in practical experience, there was certainly no disconnect between chymical theory and metal production. And as we have seen, the standard theories did not deny the possibility to transmute metals directly in the laboratory, thus bypassing the complex and expensive mining and smelting operations.

In the seventeenth century, Cartesianism and other atomistic philosophies were in ascendancy. Theorists began to rely less on organic, and more on mechanical analogies. By the early eighteenth century, most scholars did no longer perceive material reality as an organic, interconnected organism. Instead, they conceptualized it a machine composed of discrete, identifiable parts that could be combined and recombined. Simultaneously, there was a strong trend toward downplaying or denying the presence or importance of hidden (occult) powers, influences, and agents. Especially during the final decades of the century, there emerged a strong preference among natural philosophers for causal reasoning and mechanical analogies. Nevertheless, well into the eighteenth century, most chemists and other matter theorists (such as influential Georg Ernst Stahl and Herman Boerhaave) continued to search for and theorize about the very small number of underlying substances or principles. Although unseen and hitherto imperceptible, these were still assumed to be responsible for the generation of metals. Mechanical philosophy would soon, however, have a deep and transforming influence on conceptions of metals and minerals.

Metals as Species

Undoubtedly, the chemical investigation of metals provided the necessary foundation for the massive changes in the perceptions of the material world that are often summarized in the term the chemical revolution. Our modern concept of the chemical element traces its beginning to early eighteenth-century investigation of metals. Eighteenth-century chemists still did not consider metals chemical elements in the modern sense. But they redirected their efforts from the search for the underlying principles of metals. Instead, they investigated metals as individual species. They sought to distinguish metals from each other, looking for differences by means of chemical analysis. Proceeding from the notion that difference, not underlying unity, was the key to chemical knowledge, they also began to arrange the metals in series and tables: chemical maps that demonstrated differences, similarities, and affinities between substances. Again, these activities had a prehistory. Chymists and assayers had for a very long time been aware that certain substances, in particular gold and silver, did not really seem to decompose in laboratory trials. Even if they seemed to disappear during some stages of the operations – for example, in acid solution – a knowledgeable chemist or assayer could almost always recover them and return them to their metallic state. Hence, early modern chemists and assayers knew that some metals were virtually indestructible by presently known methods (Newman 2009). As already mentioned, investigators were also aware of the existence of a group of metal-like substances that had been unknown to the ancients. These were the so-called semimetals. This group included antimony, bismuth, cobalt, arsenic, zinc, and, in some accounts, mercury. Again, these familiar names had a different meaning and significance to early moderns than they have to us. As the name indicates, the semimetals were usually not considered real metals. The reason was that they lacked some essential properties of metals, such as malleability and shine. Instead, they were considered examples of nature’s infinite variety and playfulness, interesting exceptions, or even failures. They could, for example, be considered examples of subterranean metallic generation that had gone awry. Furthermore, the naming and identification of these substances varied, as there was little general agreement on which samples or specimens were to be considered an example of what.

The identification of these semimetals as metallic species in their own right was conducted mostly by Swedish and German chemists, many of whom had a strong connection to state mining administrations. The first to make such a claim in unambiguous terms was Swedish chemist Georg Brandt. His paper “Dissertatio de Semi-Metallis” published in the Acta of the Uppsala Society of Science (Brandt 1733) is usually considered the discovery of cobalt. However, cobalt minerals of various types had been described by several authors before Brandt. His innovation was primarily conceptual. Brandt argued that he could conclusively prove that cobalt ore contained a hitherto undescribed pure substance, which he regarded as an immutable species. His is recognizably a chemical discovery in a modern sense, and Brandt outlined an investigative trajectory that would be followed by chemists to the present day (Fors 2014, 2015). Among later chemists, strict albeit informal rules were soon set out for when and how a new discovery should be proclaimed. Papers were to be grounded in careful chemical analysis, aiming at the total decomposition of the investigated sample into parts that could not be reduced any further. If something metallic remained that was not previously known or described in the literature, it was to be declared a hitherto unknown metal. Then and only then should it be given a name and be considered a new chemical species. There is a clear influence here of Linnaean natural history. Carl Linnaeus, too, emphasized distinction and careful discrimination as key tools of the natural historian and also shared the emphasis on description and naming as roads to gaining systematic overview.

Brandt’s chemical approach was taken up by many others, who wrote in a similar style, and with similar aims. The most prominent among his followers was probably Axel Fredrik Cronstedt. The discoverer of nickel (1751), Cronstedt, also published a widely influential mineralogical system. In it, he boldly proposed that:

There is no danger attending the increasing the number of the metals. Astrological influences are now in no repute among the learned, and we have already more metals than planets within our solar system. It would perhaps be more useful to discover more of these metals, than idly to lose our time in repeating the numberless experiments which have been made, in order to discover the constituent part of the metals already known. (Cronstedt 1770)

Cronstedt’s was a new and radical research program, but he was of course also making a jibe at older theories of metallic composition and at gold-making. His connection of these enterprises to another by-then disreputable science – astrology – was no coincidence. Cronstedt drew on an enlightenment rhetoric and sought to situate his science in an enlightenment context. It was through boundary work such as his that a split was wrought in the previously unified chymical tradition. Both chymistry and mining knowledge were also evolving into academic disciplines (chymistry had actually come late to the universities; the first chair was established in Marburg in 1609). The link that was established between them also extended into mines and smelting works. In the eighteenth century, university-educated chemists increasingly found employment as mining officials. Assaying and smelting thus came under the influence of academic chemistry, a process that paved the way for the establishment of a large number of mining and engineering schools toward the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century.

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Medical History and HeritageKarolinska InstitutetStockholmSweden
  2. 2.Department of History of Science and IdeasUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden

Section editors and affiliations

  • Hiro Hirai
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for the History of Philosophy and ScienceRadboud Universiteit NijmegenNijmegenThe Netherlands