Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 43.djvu/95

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DISCOVERY OF ALCOHOL AND DISTILLATION.

THE DISCOVERY OF ALCOHOL AND DISTILLATION.
By M. P. E. M. BERTHELOT.

ALCOHOL is an important factor in modern civilizations, the source of great revenues to states, and of immense wealth to those who deal in products containing it. While wine, beer, hydromel, etc., have been in use from prehistoric times, the active principle common to them which produces the pleasant excitement and the disgusting intoxication, and which is concentrated in spirituous liquors, alcohol, has been known for only seven or eight centuries; it was unknown in antiquity. The story of the way the discovery of it was made is one of much interest.

The reservation of the name of alcohol for the product of the distillation of wine is modern. Till the end of the eighteenth century the word, of Arabic origin, signified any principle attenuated by extreme pulverization or by sublimation. It was applied, for example, to the powder of sulphuret of antimony (koheul), which was used for blackening the eyes, and to various other substances, as well as to spirits of wine. No author has been found of the thirteenth century, or even of the fourteenth century and later, who applied the word alcohol to the product of the distillation of wine. The term spirit of wine or ardent spirit, although more ancient, was also not in use in the thirteenth century; for the word spirit was at that time reserved for volatile agents, like mercury, sulphur, the sulphurets of arsenic, and sal ammoniac, which were capable of acting on metals and modifying their color and properties. The term eau-de-vie was given in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to the elixir of long/ life. It was Arnaud de Villeneuve who employed it for the first time to designate the product of the distillation of wine. But he used it, not as a specific name, but in order to mark the assimilation which he made of it with the product drawn from wine. The elixir of long life of the ancient alchemists had nothing in common with our alcohol. Confusion of the two has led the historians of science into more than one error.

Our alcohol first appeared under the name of inflammable water, a name which was likewise given to spirits of turpentine. Let us try to determine, from the ancient authors and those of the middle ages, what was the origin of the discovery of alcohol, and to trace the successive steps in the knowledge of that substance. The ancients observed that wine gave out something inflammable. We read in Aristotle's Meteorologica, "Ordinary wine possesses a kind of exhalation, and that is why it gives out a flame." Theophrastus, an immediate disciple of Aristotle's, says, "Wine poured upon the fire, as for libations, throws out a light"