The fairy tales of science/Modern Alchemy

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The fairy tales of science by John Cargill Brough
Modern Alchemy
"Modern Alchemy"

Modern Alchemy

"But when you see th' effects of the Great Medicine,
 Of which one part projected on a hundred
 Of Mercury, or Venus, or the Moon,
 Shall turn it to as many of the Sun,
 Nay, to a thousand, so ad infinitum,
 You will believe me."—Ben Jonson.

Who has not heard of the Philosopher's Stone, that much-coveted but unattainable red powder of the alchemists, which was supposed to possess the powers of transmuting baser metals into gold, of healing disease, and of restoring youth? Who has not read of those misguided men of former ages, whose lives were passed in attempting to discover this precious substance, which was to confer upon them inexhaustible wealth, health, and longevity, but whose labours too often resulted in poverty, sickness, and death?

In the present day we are too apt to regard the doctrine of transmutation, which formed the basis of alchemy, as a mere hallucination of the human mind; and to look upon the men who entertained it with mixed feelings of pity and contempt. Now if we only take the trouble to dip into the subject of Alchemy, we shall find that the idea of the transmutation of baser metals into gold stood in the most perfect harmony with all the observations and all the knowledge of the age in which it was conceived, and that the alchemists, instead of being crack-brained enthusiasts, were the most learned and acute men of their time.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were many impostors who pretended a knowledge of gold-making; but it is unjust to confound them with the true alchemists, who were equivalent to the chemists of the present day. We cannot really draw a line of demarcation between alchemy and chemistry, as the one science passed by an imperceptible transition into the other. Alchemy is ancient chemistry, and chemistry modern alchemy. Many of the opinions entertained by the chemists of to-day are quite as extravagant as those held by the alchemists. Indeed, as our knowledge increases, the transmutation of metals seems to grow more and more probable.

Before we consider the magical transformations that are effected by the modern alchemist, let us examine some of the doctrines propounded by his ancient representative.

The alchemist maintained that all the metals are compounds; that the baser metals contain the same constituents as gold, contaminated with various impurities. To transmute any metals into gold, these impurities must be removed or remedied, a result only to be attained through the agency of the great medicine, or philosopher's stone.

This view of the nature of metallic bodies was perfectly consistent with known facts. It was known that the colour or hardness of a metal could be modified by the addition of a foreign substance, and it was only natural to suppose that the different qualities of the metals depended on certain impurities.

Gold was the only pure or healthy metal. Brass was diseased gold; mercury was diseased silver; but these metals, and all the others, might be healed, or transmuted into gold, by the wonderful red powder. In the mystical language of the alchemists gold was called Sol, or the sun; silver, being the next metal in purity, was Luna, or the moon; and the other five metals then known received the names of the planets.

The idea that the philosopher's stone possessed the powers of curing diseases, and of prolonging life, was evidently suggested by its supposed effect on ignoble metals. Since it could heal the metallic lepers, and convert them into gold, why should it not ennoble the human body?

The existence of the philosopher's stone was never questioned, though few of the alchemists who have left writings behind them boast of having had it in their possession. In all the wonderful stories that are told of the conversion of the baser metals into gold, some mysterious unknown is made the fortunate possessor of the magical substance. The narrative of Helvetius, the distinguished physician to the Prince of Orange, is a good example of these stories:—

At the close of the year 1666 a stranger called upon Helvetius, and showed him five large plates of gold, which he said he had made by means of the philosopher's stone. The physician, who had hitherto been a bitter opponent of alchemy, was not prepared to receive this extraordinary statement without some convincing proof of its truth; he therefore besought the stranger to give him a small portion of the stone, or at least to make a trial of its powers in his presence. The stranger refused to accede to either of these requests, and took his leave, promising, however, to return in six weeks. He kept his promise, and presented Helvetius with a piece of the stone about the size of a mustard-seed. Next day the physician, in the presence of his wife and son, put six drachms of lead into a crucible, and as soon as it was melted, threw into it the fragment which he had obtained from the adept. The crucible was now covered with its lid, and left in the fire for a quarter of an hour, at the end of which time the whole of the lead was converted into gold. The melted metal was at first of a deep green colour, then it became blood-red, but when cold it assumed the true tint of gold. This ingot stood all the tests that were applied to it by Porelius, the Warden of the Dutch Mint, and was found to be pure gold! We need scarcely add that the sceptical Helvetius became a firm believer in the transmutation of metals.

We dare not accept this strange story as a true one, though we cannot comprehend the motives that could have induced Helvetius to promulgate that which he knew to be false. In the present state of our knowledge, we regard lead and gold as distinct bodies, and not modifications of the same substance.

If the alchemists failed to discover the philosopher's stone, we must not conclude that their labours were fruitless. In seeking that which had no real existence, they found some inestimable treasures; for most of those acids, alkalies, and salts that are indispensable to the modern experimentalist were discovered hundreds of years ago by the alchemists.

"The philosopher's stone," says Baron Liebig, "for which the ancients sought with a dim and ill-defined impulse, was in its perfection nothing else than the science of chemistry. Is that not the philosopher's stone which promises to increase the fertility of our fields, and to ensure the prosperity of additional millions of mankind? Does not chemistry promise that instead of seven grains we shall be enabled to raise eight, or more, on the same soil? Is that science not the philosopher's stone which changes the ingredients of the crust of the earth into useful products, to be further transformed by commerce into gold? Is that knowledge not the philosopher's stone which promises to disclose the laws of life, and which must finally yield to us the means of curing diseases and of prolonging life?" With these remarks we will take our leave of the ancient alchemists, and proceed to consider the labours of the alchemists of the present day.

Let us step into a laboratory and surprise one of these men of science at his work. What a different place from the smoky workshop of the alchemist of former days! The massive furnaces have given way to cunning contrivances for gas, and all the clumsy alembics, aludels, and earthen vessels which were once in vogue, have been displaced to make room for tiny bottles, retorts, glass tubes, and balances.

The alchemist himself has shaved off his long beard, and has discarded his ample gown; he now wears a most unpicturesque black coat, and looks for all the world like an ordinary person.

What is he doing? Is he trying to transmute lead into gold? No, he is not satisfied that the metals are transmutable, and he cannot afford to waste his life in researches which may never lead to satisfactory results. He is doing something which seems quite as extraordinary as gold making—he is extracting a beautiful metal from clay!

This metal, which is called aluminium, was first procured in a separate state some thirty years ago, but in so small a quantity that its peculiar qualities could not be defined. We are indebted to a celebrated French adept[1] for the process by which the metal can be obtained in considerable masses.

Here is a bar of aluminium. It resembles silver in its beautiful lustre, but can be easily distinguished from that metal by its bluish colour. If we handle the bar we shall marvel greatly at its lightness, as aluminium is only two and a-half times heavier than water, or less than one-third the weight of iron. The alchemist will tell us that it is endowed with many striking properties. It can be fused almost as easily as zinc, and cast into any form. It is malleable and ductile to a great extent, and can be beaten into the thinnest plates, or drawn out into the finest wires. It is a better conductor of electricity than any metal at present known. It does not tarnish on exposure to the air, and is not affected by the sulphurous vapours that prove so destructive to the lustre of silver. It is admirably adapted for the manufacture of bells, as it has all the sonorous qualities of the most expensive bronzes. Its marvellous lightness and strength render it an invaluable material for defensive armour. It is free from deleterious qualities, and therefore suited for domestic utensils. It may be fashioned into ornaments that will never lose their splendour, and into delicate scale-beams and watch-wheels that will never be affected by rust. In fine, aluminium seems to possess properties which render it useful in a thousand ways, and if the process by which it is obtained can be further simplified, it will prove an inestimable boon to mankind. The source of aluminium is inexhaustible, since it is the base of every kind of clay. About one-third of the weight of every brick, every stone-jar, and every tea-cup consists of this curious metal.

Who will say that alchemy is extinct? What science but alchemy would enable us to extract a metal having an intrinsic value equal to that of gold, from a lump of worthless clay?

The artificial formation of lapis lazuli is another brilliant achievement of modern alchemy. This mineral has always been esteemed for its beautiful azure-blue colour, and for furnishing us with the valuable pigment, ultramarine.

Before the chemist could produce ultramarine artificially, he required to know the composition of the natural mineral; before he could form a portion of lapis lazuli, it was necessary that he should pull another portion to pieces for a pattern. This preliminary operation was soon performed, and lapis lazuli was found to be composed of silica, alumina, and soda, three colourless bodies, with sulphur and a trace of iron, neither of which is blue. The chemist was not a whit disheartened at the absence of any colouring ingredient, as he knew that it was impossible to account for the colour of most chemical compounds. He now combined the five ingredients of the mineral in their proper proportions, and saw, to his great delight, that the compound assumed the matchless hue of ultramarine. The artificial ultramarine is even more beautiful than the natural, while for the price of a single ounce of the latter we may obtain many pounds of the former.

Surely our modern alchemists have discovered the true philosopher's stone, for with the comparatively valueless substances, flint, clay, soda, sulphur, and iron, they form a mineral which was formerly much dearer than gold!

We cannot tell what wonders may yet be performed by the modern alchemists; one of their number has said, that to-morrow or next day some one may discover a method of producing, from a piece of charcoal, a splendid diamond; from a bit of alum, sapphires or rubies, or from coal-tar the beautiful colouring principle of madder, or the valuable remedies known as quinine and morphine; all these things being either as precious or more useful than gold.

The extraction of aluminium from clay, and the manufacture of ultramarine, are examples of chemical analysis and synthesis, but not of transmutation. Let us now examine the opinions entertained by the alchemists of to-day on the subject of the transmutation of elementary bodies.

The ancients believed the metals to be compounds, and this view may be correct. They are now considered to be simple substances, not because they are known to be undecomposable, but because they have never yet been decomposed. Fifty years ago upwards of a dozen bodies were regarded as elements which are now known to be compounds of metals with oxygen.

Who can tell what another period of fifty years may do for alchemy? It is quite possible that at the end of that time the sixty-three so-called simple bodies may be found to be mere modifications of three or four elements, or perhaps of one primordial substance.

These considerations lead us to reflect on the curious transformations which occur in the properties of certain elementary bodies, and which must be regarded as instances of transmutation. Now, a difference in the properties of two compounds having the same composition, may arise from a difference in the arrangement of their ultimate particles; but how is it with the different forms assumed by a simple body? A mass of phosphorus is supposed to be an aggregate of similar atoms, yet this and many other substances of a simple nature, are liable to strange variations of condition which we are as yet unable to explain.

The element carbon exists in many different states. This irregular lump of charcoal, this light powder called lamp-black, and this hard semi-crystalline mass of coke, are mere modifications of one substance.

Again, this piece of graphite is chemically the same substance, as it is simply an aggregate of carbon atoms; but it has none of the properties of charcoal. It has a metallic leaden-grey lustre, whence its familiar name of black-lead. It burns with great difficulty; it is greasy to the touch, and it leaves dark traces when rubbed upon paper.

But the most remarkable form assumed by carbon is that of the diamond. This precious gem occurs in nature in regular crystals, usually colourless, but sometimes yellow and brown. Now, we are convinced that this brilliant and transparent body is made up of the very same atoms as those which go to form the dull black mass of charcoal! The alchemist has not yet succeeded in making diamonds, but he has already transmuted diamonds into coke. Who knows but what he may reverse this transmutation before long!

When we find a single element assuming these Protean shapes, we must admit that the notions of the old alchemists were far from being extravagant. To a person ignorant of chemistry it would appear much more probable that the metals are modifications of one substance, than that the diamond is merely crystallized charcoal.

Sulphur may be obtained in various forms. The roll-sulphur or brimstone, and the fine powder called flowers of sulphur, are probably the only forms known to the reader. The alchemist, however, procures sulphur in beautiful semi-transparent crystals; in needle-like prisms of a brownish-yellow colour; and in a soft and sticky mass, which may be drawn out into elastic threads, and which greatly resembles shoemaker's wax.

Phosphorus is equally changeable, and may be obtained in no less than five different forms. Let us compare ordinary phosphorus with its most striking modification, which has been designated amorphous phosphorus. Ordinary phosphorus is a colourless waxy-looking solid; the amorphous phosphorus is opaque, and of a brownish-red colour. The former is easily fusible, very inflammable, and luminous in the dark; the latter may be heated in the open air without change, until the temperature reaches 500°, when it is converted into ordinary phosphorus. Great caution is required in handling the ordinary phosphorus, as the heat of the hand is sometimes sufficient to inflame it; but the philosopher who discovered the amorphous phosphorus[2] is in the habit of carrying this variety loose in his pocket. Common phosphorus dissolves in bisulphide of carbon; the altered phosphorus is insoluble in that liquid. The former is very poisonous; the latter, in the same dose, has no effect on the animal system.

These marvellous differences are inexplicable. We are able to change the ordinary phosphorus into the amorphous variety by means of heat, without adding to it any new substance, therefore we are quite sure that the soft translucent solid that takes fire so easily is chemically the same substance as that uninflammable solid which looks like a piece of common red sealing-wax. Were we unable to effect this strange transmutation, we should doubtless regard these two modifications of phosphorus as distinct elements.

The invisible gas, oxygen, can be made to assume a very strange condition, by transmitting through it a succession of electric sparks. This altered oxygen, which has received the name of ozone, exhibits some very striking properties. It has a powerful odour, whereas ordinary oxygen is destitute of the slightest smell. It possesses considerable bleaching powers, corrodes organic matters, and acts as a powerful oxidizing agent. It seems to be much more active than ordinary oxygen, and might easily be taken for a distinct element by those ignorant of the fact that its active character can be destroyed by heat.

These instances of actual transmutation will suffice to convince the reader that alchemy still exists. He will see that our modern alchemists are true descendants of the ancient gold-seekers, though they no longer believe in the philosopher's stone. He will be less disposed to ridicule the idea of the transmutation of metals, and will be able to form some conception of the wonderful products of modern alchemy.

  1. M. St. Claire Deville.
  2. M. Schrötter.