The Ancients and the Alchemists

2019 International Year of the Periodic Table

[This series is a companion to our International Year of the Periodic Table project — Timeline of Elements and Mendeleev Mosaic. Time periods from our timeline project will be featured highlighting the historical and scientific advancements resulting in the discoveries of the elements of that period. James Marshall researches the history of the discovery of the elements. His studies have carried him to over 20 countries where he has photographed and documented specific sites which he describes in his publications on chemical history.  Explore the artwork for the Timeline of Elements for ancients and alchemists with individual discovery stories of each element with acknowledgement to artist(s), teacher, school and countries on our Timeline of Elements website. ]

Introduction to Ancients and Alchemists

timeline of elements by decades with the elements in BCE and CE-1734 blocked off in red The Ancients

For over five millennia the mysterious transmutation of substances into new ones — the enigmatic metamorphosis of sand and clay into glass and pottery, the mutation of larvae into flies, the basic riddle of life itself — suggested to the human mind that deep-seated principles were responsible. Beginning with recorded history, the ancient Egyptians were deeply preoccupied with life and death and sought answers through medications, pharmaceutical preparations and incantations.

The ancient Greeks were the first to address the question of what these principles might be. Water was the obvious basic essence, and Aristotle expanded the Greek philosophy to encompass an obscure mixture of four elements — fire, earth, water and air — as being responsible for the makeup of all materials of the Earth. It would take thousands of years for mankind to evolve his thinking from Principles — which were ethereal notions describing the perceptions of this material world — to Elements — real, concrete basic stuff of this universe.

The alchemists, who devoted untold grueling hours to transmute metals into gold, believed that in addition to the four Aristotelian elements, two principles gave rise to all natural substances: mercury and sulfur. The progenitor of this theory was the Arabian alchemist Geber. A thousand years ago he explained that mercury could contribute “fluidity,” and sulfur “combustibility”; later alchemists added salt, which would confer “fixity.”

Robert Boyle, best known for his “Boyle’s Law”, in the 1600s discussed in “The Sceptical Chymist” the standards by which a substance could be adjudged as an element. He realized that Aristotle’s four elements and the alchemists’ three principles could not be correct, because they were never proven to compose, nor could they be extracted from, any other substances. In other words, if something was an element, then it must be proven by experiment to be separable as basic material which could not be reduced to any more fundamental stuff. 

The truth was much more subtle — and surprisingly simple. True elements were ingredients to worldly materials, and usually were hidden in complex combinations. Only rarely did an element present itself in its simple form in nature — such as gold. It was like trying to identify the flour, sugar, salt, lard, eggs and spices that went into the baking of a cake from the smells emanating from the final concoction!

The giant step in this evolution of thought — from philosophical Principle to materialistic Element — was made by Lavoisier, who in his Treatise of 1789 realized that since water was manufactured by the combination of “inflammable gas” (hydrogen) and “vital air” (oxygen), then water must be a compound. From this remarkable intuition all else followed. Lavoisier listed 31 materials which he proposed — correctly — were the true elements, including sulfur, iron, carbon, copper, molybdenum, etc. Recognizing that “inflammable air” and “vital air” were elements, he dubbed them with the names by which we know them today. Lavoisier had peeked beyond the dining room into the kitchen.

Robert Boyle
Robert Boyle (1627-1691), formulator of "Boyle's Law" which relates the pressure of a gas to its volume. He was the first scientist to define an "Element" as the simplest chemical ingredient which could not be resolved any further into a simpler substance.

Lavoisier’s insight opened the cupboard doors, out of which tumbled a myriad of wondrous oils, sugars and spices. Excitement grew in the scientific community as, one by one, new condiments were discovered pell-mell in this pantry. By the middle of the nineteenth century it was recognized that the cabinet was even organized in tidy shelves and bins, and soon Dimitri Mendeleev and Lothar Meyer — discoverers of the Periodic Table — were even predicting new flavorings not yet tasted or dreamed of!

For eight issues, during this International Year of the Periodic Table, we will outline the story of how that kitchen was explored…

The Story of the Elements begins with the Stone Age, when it was discovered how to prepare tools out of wood, bone and rocks. People discovered that wood was good for preparing pliable implements, such as shafts and spears. Bone was excellent for fine instruments such as needles. Rocks could be used for kitchen utensils (for example bowls, typically from rough igneous stones), and for tools and weapons (such as scrapers and spearheads, usually flint). These materials were effective, but all suffered from their tendency to splinter or break — they were all brittle. Humanity eventually stumbled upon metals that had unique properties — they were simultaneously malleable and strong — they could be used for tools and weapons, could be prepared under heat and were not brittle.

Seven metals were known to the ancients — gold, copper, tin, lead, mercury, silver and iron. Gold, because of its beauty and its resistance to corrosion, was adopted for jewelry and ornaments. The first metal of practical use was copper, which could be beaten into tools and ornaments. It was found that when copper was mixed with tin a harder, more durable metal could be formed — bronze. Lead was a softer and heavier metal; it could be used as weights, water pipes, writing tablets, and coins. Mercury was easily obtained from its ore by mere heating, appearing as “sweat’ on cinnabar; it was used in medicines. Silver was usually in combined form, and originally was more difficult to procure than gold. The discovery of iron was delayed because of its corrosion and the difficulty of smelting it.

The ancient Greeks, with their penchant for harmony, included these metals in a total world that was composed of only four elements — water, fire, earth and air. Aristotle reasoned these four elements could blend in various proportions to give rise to any property one could want: water with its wetness and coolness, earth with its dryness and coolness, fire with its dryness and its hotness, and air with its wetness and its hotness, could produce all the rocks, wood, organisms, etc., that we observe in the world.

a bust of Aristotle

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was the Greek philosopher who elucidated the four sensible elements (fire, earth, water and air) and related them to the physical qualities hotness, coldness, wetness and dryness. 

 The view that the Earth was composed of these four elements persisted into the 18th century. Indeed, in a leading encyclopedia of the day — under “Element” in A Dictionary of Chemistry, by P. J. Macquer, published in 1777 — the following entry is made:

Those bodies are called by chemists elements, which are so simple, that they cannot by any known method be decomposed, or even altered; and which also enter as principles, or constituent parts, into the combination of other bodies, which are therefore called compound bodies.

Modern chemistry could not develop until these ancient philosophies and superstitions of principles, essences, and spirits were replaced by more practical schemes. But these old thoughts could not be abandoned until they were thoroughly tried out in real-world situations (i.e., by experimentation). This exhaustive examination was performed by the alchemists.

The Alchemists (500-1700 A.D.)

During the Dark Ages, the bright light of chemistry was sustained by the Arabians. The classical Greek texts in mathematics, astronomy and medicine had been translated into Arabic by about 850 A.D. A huge amount of experimental data was being accumulated not only for metals but also for acids and bases, salts, organics and other chemicals. Foremost of the Arabian chemists was Geber, who raised experimental science to a new level with extensive documentation and new textbooks. This Arabian wealth of information slowly migrated into Europe. Known by its Arabian name — “al kimiya,” i.e., “the chemistry” — practitioners of this art became known as “alchemists”.

The medieval alchemists were accumulating a wealth of information on the mysteries of “transmutational” changes and were making attempts to interpret their observations and their hopes. They observed that substances were continuously changing from one form to another. Deep in the earth, they believed, the metals slowly evolved to a higher form. Lead would slowly transform into iron, then into copper, thence to silver and finally to gold. 

Since all substances contained principles, if one could only understand and direct these principles, then they could produce more precious materials. If only one could discover a catalyst to rapidly effect this transformation, it would be glorious indeed! Such a catalyst, called “the philosopher’s stone” would enable one to produce gold in large quantities. Thus was born the “Alchemist”, who spent thousands of toiling hours trying to unlock these secrets of the philosopher’s stone.

The alchemists believed that all metals were formed from two principles — mercury and sulfur. The mercury, with its essential property of fluidity and fusibility, gave rise to the malleability of metals. The sulphur, with its essential property of combustibility, contributed body and calcination (rusting). If only the alchemist could combine mercury and sulfur in the correct proportions, with the philosopher’s stone as a catalyst, he could produce all metals — including gold! — in prodigious quantities.

As the alchemists toiled countless hours over the furnace, they stumbled upon several new substances, which today we recognize as elements, but at the time were characterized as strange blends of the principles of fire, earth, water and air, and of mercury, sulfur and salt. Phosphorus was isolated from urine, named as such because it literally glowed in the dark. Antimony was recognized as a new substance; it actually had been mentioned in the Bible as “stibic stone,” used as a black mascara. Zinc was used in medical preparations, known primarily in calamine and also recognized as an ingredient in brass. Bismuth was discovered as a heavy, malleable metal, it was used in metallic wood-work trim. Arsenic had been known in the form of its compounds since ancient days; it was used in cosmetics and medicines (even though it is a poison!).

The alchemists were responsible for the genesis of modern chemistry. They developed as a subculture in medieval Christianity, and unwittingly paved the way for this science by making three distinct contributions: 

  1. experimentation itself, involving the ancient chemical processes of distillation, precipitation, decrepitation, calcining, etc.; 
  2. a basis of Greek logic and harmony, providing the faith that logic and reasoning could arrive at a final answer; and 
  3. a faith in God, who created a Perfect World with a common set of (scientific) laws. Chemistry, as with all the sciences, depended upon these three factors for its development.

When the Moslem culture invaded Spain, the ideas of Geber (experimentation) and of Aristotle (logic) invaded the minds of the medieval Europeans. Charlemagne had directed cathedrals and monasteries to establish schools, the precursor of the modern university, since the culture of the Church was responsible for the university, which sought to establish the truths of the Perfect World.

From this culture came the most famous of the Medieval scientists, Roger Bacon, who introduced the inductive method to science. Bacon argued that science must use experiment as its method. In other words, the description of natural law must be induced from many examples — the general can follow from the specific. This breakthrough led the way for the experimental method, the foundation of modern science. In the next issue we will explore how science and chemistry advanced in the evolving technology of mining.    


Photos taken from J. L. Marshall, Discovery of the Elements, Peterson Custom Publishing, 2002.

old drawing of weary looking men in a very messy lab breathing in chemicals while working

Alchemists in the laboratory, in their quest for gold. They believed that by changing the properties of a metal they could change the metal itself — hence, the base metals could be transmuted into precious metals, hopefully with the aid of a "philosopher's stone."