ALCHEMY, or ALCHYMY, the art which in former times occupied the place of and paved the way for the modern science of chemistry (as astrology did for astronomy), but whose aims were not scientific, being confined solely to the discovery of the means of indefinitely pro longing human life, and of transmuting the baser metals into gold and silver. Probably the ancient nations, in their first attempts to melt metals, observing that the composition of differ ent metals produced masses of a color unlike either—for instance, that a mixture like gold resulted from the melting together of copper and zinc — arrived at the conclusion that one metal could be changed into another. At an early period the desire ofgold and silver grew strong as luxury increased, and men indulged the hope of obtaining these rarer metals from the more common. At the same time the love of life led to the idea of finding a remedy against all diseases, a means of lessening the infirmities of age, of renewing youth and re pelling death. The hope of realizing these ideas prompted the efforts of several men, who taught their doctrines through mystical images and symbols. To transmute metals they thought it necessary to find a substitute which, containing the original principle of all matter, should pos sess the _power of dissolving all into its ele ments. This general solvent or menstruum universole, which at the same time was to possess the power of removing all the seeds of disease out of the human body and renewing life, was called the philosopher's stone, lapis i philosophorum, and its pretended possessors adepts. The more obscure the ideas which the alchemists themselves had of the appearances occurring in their experiments, the more they endeavored to express themselves in symbolical language. Afterward they retained this phrase ology to conceal their secrets from the uniniti ated. In Egypt Hermes Trismegistus was said to have left behind him many books of chemi cal, magical and alchemical learning. These, however, are of a later date. (See HERMES TRISMECISTUS). After him chemistry and alchemy received the name of the hermetic art. It is certain that the ancient Egyptians pos sessed considerable chemical and metallurgical knowledge, although the origin of alchemy can not with certainty be attributed to them. Sev eral Grecians became acquainted with the writ ings of the Egyptians, and initiated in their chemical knowledge. The fondness for magic, and for alchemy more particularly, spread after ward among the Romans also. When true science was persecuted under the Roman tyrants, superstition and false philosophy flour ished the more. The prodigality of the Romans excited the desire for gold, and led them to pur sue the art which promised it instantaneously and abundantly. Caligula made experiments with a view of obtaining gold from orpiment. On the other hand, Diocletian ordered all books to be burned that taught to manufacture gold and silver by alchemy. At that time many books on alchemy were written, and falsely in scribed with the names of renowned men of antiquity. Thus a number of writings were ascribed to Democritus, and more to Hermes, which were written by Egyptian monks and hermits, and which, as the Tabula Smaragdina, taught in allegories, with mystical and symboli cal figures the way to discover the philosopher's stone. At a later period chemistry and alchemy
were cultivated among the Arabians. In the 8th century the first chemist, commonly said to be Geber, flourished among them, in whose works rules are given for preparing quicksilver and other metals. In the Middle Ages the monks devoted themselves to alchemy, although they were afterward prohibited from studying it by the popes. But there was one even among these, John XXII, who was fond of alchemy. Raymond Lully, or Lullius, was one of the most famous alchemists in the 13th and 14th cen turies. A story is told of him that during his stay in London he changed for King Edward I a mass of 50,000 pounds of quicksilver into gold, of which the first rose-nobles were coined. The study of alchemy was prohibited at Venice in 1488. Paracelsus, who was highly celebrated about 1525, belongs to the renowned alchemists, as do Roger Bacon, Basilius Valentinus and many others. When, however, more rational principles of chemistry and philosophy began to be diffused and to shed light on chemical phenomena, the rage for alchemy gradually de creased, though many persons, including some nobles, still remained devoted to it. Alchemy has, however, afforded some service to chem istry, and even to medicine. Chemistry was first carefully studied by the alchemists, to whose labor and patience we are indebted for several useful discoveries, for example, various preparations of quicksilver, kermes, etc.
It is still impossible to assert anything with certainty about the transmutation of metals. Modern chemistry, indeed, places metals in the class of elements, and denies the possibility of changing an inferior metal into gold. Most of the accounts of such transmutation rest on fraud or delusion, although some of them are accompanied with circumstances and testimony which render them probable. By means of the galvanic battery even the alkalies have been discovered to have a metallic base. The pos sibility of obtaining metal from other sub stances which contain the ingredients compos ing it, and of changing one metal into another, or rather of refining it, must therefore be left undecided. Nor are all alchemists to be con sidered impostors. Many have labored, under the conviction of the possibility of obtaining their object, with indefatigable patience and purity of heart (which is earnestly recom mended by sound alchemists as the principal requisite for the success of their labors). De signing men, however, have often used alchemy as a mask for their covetousness, and as a means of defrauding silly people of their money. Many persons even in our days, desti tute of sound chemical knowledge, have been led by old books on alchemy, which they did not understand, into long, expensive and fruit less labors. Hitherto chemistry has not suc ceeded in unfolding the principles by which metals are formed, the laws of their production, their growth and refinement, and in aiding or imitating this process of nature; consequently the labor of the alchemist is but a groping in the dark.