Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/September 1897/Alchemy Redivivus

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BASIL-VALENTINE, a famous alchemist of the middle ages, was the most noted exponent of the belief in the transmutation of metals. He thought that the germ of the precious metal gold was hidden in the base metal antimony, and claimed that by following certain mystic formulas the gold could be recovered. About the year 1445 he published in the Latin tongue a celebrated treatise entitled The Triumphal Car of Antimony, which had a great reputation, not only among his contemporaries but among his successors. The treatise was couched in cabalistic phraseology—a sort of abracadabra—which, of course, the vulgar people could not comprehend; it was designed only for his disciples. The book purports to contain the "twelve keys of the great stone of the ancient philosophers."

His formula for converting antimony into gold is interesting at the present time, in view of the fact that a modern alchemist has actually succeeded in inducing the Secretary of the Treasury to officially order an investigation, by three of the mint experts, of a process of transmutation, or "creation," of gold which is singularly similar to the old alchemists' plan.

Basil-Valentine concealed his secret from the common people in the following mystic words: "The king's diadem is made of pure gold, and a chaste bride must be married unto him, wherefore, if ye will work on our bodies take the most ravenous gray wolf, which, by reason of his name, is subject to valorous Mars, but by the genesis of his nativity he is subject to old Saturn; found in mountains and in valleys of the world; he is very hungry; cast into him the king's body that he may be nourished by it; when he hath devoured the king make a great fire, into which cast the wolf that he be quite burned, then will the king be at liberty. When ye have done this thrice, then hath the king overcome the wolf, neither can he find any more of him to feed upon."

The mysterious language adopted by the alchemists was not always owing to an intention to deceive; many of these fanatics believed that it was wicked to reveal the hidden secrets of Nature to the common people, and might even cause the death of the author. Thus, Wilhelm von Schroeder, in 1684, wrote a book entitled Necessary Instructions in the Art of Gold Making, in which he says: "When philosophers speak openly, a deceit lies behind their words; while when they speak enigmatically, they may be depended upon."

Reverting to the enigmatical formula of Basil-Valentine, it is said that the key to this mysterious jargon gives the following simple explanation: The ravenous gray wolf is the sulphuret of antimony. The king's body typifies the metal gold. The sulphuret of antimony is decomposed by iron by the aid of heat, and is thus "subject to valorous Mars." When these elements (antimony, sulphur, and iron) are subjected to a great fire in a crucible, the king (gold) imprisoned in the wolf (antimony) is liberated.[1]

The modern process which the three mint experts were called upon to investigate, and upon which they have reported negatively, was at first shrouded in secrecy; but the inventor himself has recently given to the public his formula, in a newspaper interview, which one of the experts stated at a meeting of the Franklin Institute is substantially correct. His process consists essentially in subjecting antimony, sulphur, and iron to intense heat in a crucible, whereby a portion of the antimony is supposed to be changed or transmuted into gold, and this is subsequently recovered by the usual metallurgical methods.

The experts found, on repeating these experiments, using the purest antimony that could be obtained from chemists, that a tiny globule of gold and silver remained after removing all the iron, antimony, and sulphur; but they also found that traces of gold and silver are invariably associated with native antimony, and when they succeeded in producing chemically pure antimony for the test, not a trace of gold or of silver resulted from the subsequent transmuting or "creative" process.

Some criticism has been expressed that the United States Government should have dignified this ridiculous claim, to the extent of ordering an investigation of it by the mint metallurgists, but their report is well calculated to set at rest the preposterous scheme which had already attracted not a few gullible people, including some investors.[2]

This investigation recalls a series of interesting experiments which were made in the Philadelphia Mint about forty years ago by the former assayer, the late Jacob R. Eckfeldt, the results of which were communicated to the American Philosophical Society by his assistant and successor, the late William E. Dubois, who also aided in the work. Samples of nearly all the known metals were obtained from various parts of the country; these were subjected to the usual processes for detecting the presence of gold, the greatest care being used to avoid errors. Gold was found in all the specimens of antimony, bismuth, lead, copper, etc., varying from one part in four hundred and forty thousand parts in a specimen of antimony to one part in six million two hundred and twenty thousand parts in a specimen of galena from Bucks County, Pennsylvania: this was equivalent to two grains and a quarter, not quite ten cents, to the ton.

The most remarkable result of all was obtained from specimens of clay from various localities within the limits of the city of Philadelphia; the clay was taken from a depth of about fourteen feet below the surface, and was found to contain gold in the proportion of one part in one million two hundred and twenty-four thousand parts of thoroughly dried clay, and was very uniformly distributed.

The report says: "In order to calculate, with some accuracy, the value of this body of wealth, we cut out blocks of the clay, and found, on an average, a cubic foot, as it lies in the ground, weighs one hundred and twenty pounds as near as may be. The assay gives seven-tenths grain, say three cents' worth, to the cubic foot. Assuming the data already given, we get four thousand one hundred and eighty million cubic feet of clay under our streets and houses, in which securely lies one hundred and twenty-six million dollars. And if, as is pretty certain, the corporate limits of the city would afford eight times this bulk of clay, we have more gold than has yet been brought, according to the statistics, from California and Australia."

Other calculations show that every time a load of clay is hauled out of a cellar enough gold goes with it to pay for the carting; and if the bricks which front our houses could have brought to their surface, in the form of gold leaf, the amount of gold which they contain, we should have a glittering show of two square inches on each brick. A single specimen of zinc proved to be absolutely free from gold.

These investigations proved that, while gold is justly considered one of the rarest metals, it is also one of the most widely diffused, and there are many philosophical reasons to be found in explanation of this apparent paradox.

  1. In 1423 Henry VI of England issued a royal proclamation encouraging the art of gold making, and in 1476 Edward IV accorded to a company "a four years' privilege of making gold from quicksilver." The Danish ducats of 1647 were made of gold obtained, as it was believed, from artificial sources, by Caspar Harbach, the alchemist of Christian IV. In 1648 a large medal was struck for Emperor Ferdinand 11 from "artificially prepared gold," and the ducats struck under Landgrave Ernest Lewis, of Hesse-Darmstadt, were supposed to be of artificial gold prepared by the transmutation of lead. In 1700 an alchemical work appeared bearing the appropriate title Chymical Moonshine.
  2. It is stated that the inventor of the so-called "gold creative process" applied for a United States patent, and, upon its refusal, the matter was brought before the present Secretary of the Treasury, who ordered the investigation to be made in the metallurgical laboratory of the Mint Bureau. The committee appointed by the Director of the Mint, in accordance with these instructions, consisted of the assayer of the Mint Bureau, the superintendent of the assay office in New York, and the melter and refiner of the Mint in Philadelphia. They adhered closely to the inventor's formulas. An abstract of their report has appeared in print.