Alchemy is a form of somewhat pseudo-chemistry that has to do with turning lead or other common metals into gold. Throughout history, chemists (alchemists) have attempted to accomplish this feat, sometimes with moderate success. Alchemy also concerns the creation of the 'Philosopher's Stone", a stone which would be able to turn common metals into gold, and also be able to produce the Elixer of Life which would render the drinker immortal. All of this seems somewhat silly, in the age of modern science, not many people still concern themselves with the actual practice of alchemy. However, alchemy and the alchemists themselves have had a great impact on the modern world. The procedures and equipment they used are still applied in modern times.

History of Alchemy

Historical interpretation of an alchemist
Historical interpretation of an alchemist
Throughout time, alchemy has been pursued for many reasons. There were of course the "common cheats" (3) who pretended to be able to make gold out of common metals purely for profit, however many alchemists felt themselves to be quite noble. They sought to be immortal, to gain wisdom, all through this pursuit, which was really the only form of chemistry at the time. At the fall of the Roman Empire, classical art as well as science was lost. Throughout the Dark Ages, people in Europe did not pursue these things. Even in the middle ages intellectual pursuits were only possible in a monastary, and even then the learning was aimed at religious pursuits. It wasn't until the begginning of the renaissance that people started to pursue knowledge again. Alchemy however, was pursued all around the world throughout all this time and even before. The Egyptian ruler "Hermes Trismegistus" (his Greek name) is thought to have created the art in around 1900 B.C.E. His "Emerald Tablet" is the primary document of alchemy. (4) Alchemy also appeared in China around 35 C.E. Chang Tao-Ling, a Taoist leader at the time would spend long periods of time in the mountains pursuing alchemy; the Elixer of Life and the wisdom that came with it. There is also evidence that alchemy appeared a lot earlier in Chinese history and may even have it's origins there. (4) Alchemy also appeared in many Arabian cultures, and from there it traveled into Europe. Alchemy moved into Spain from Arab cultures in North Africa around the time of the first crusade. At first, some alchemists were feared by the Europeans. Peter d'Apona, an alchemist born in Padua in the 13th century was killed on the rack by the
Raymond Lully
Raymond Lully
inquisition. Many alchemists at this time, often the more religiously oriented ones, cast away all the aspects of material gain from the pursuit of alchemy and only focused on the spiritual and philisophical aspects of the art. One over zealous christian alchemist however saw alchemy as a way to spread christianity. Raymond Lully, who traveled Europe, the Middle East, and even Africa preaching christianity, made an agreement with the king of England to transmute common metals into gold only if that gold was used to keep the crusades going. Even though there were
Artephius's book
Artephius's book
these somewhat greedy alchemists who only thought of their personal gains, there are of course many good things attributed to alchemists.


Artephius was an alchemist who claimed to have mastered the "Emerald Tablet" and to have lived for one thousand years. He wrote many books on alchemy, denoting his age in many. Some believe that these books were written by jokers attempting to ridicule alchemy, however some attribute them and the identity of Artephius to the Arabic alchemist Al Toghari. (5)

Overview of Alchemy in Musical Form

The Three Principles of Alchemy


(Sulfur or brimstone)
The expansive force
external image sulfur.gif

The contractive force
external image Salt.gif

The integrative force
balances salt and sulphur
external image Mercury.jpg


Spagyrics is the production of herbal medicines using alchemical methods involving distillation, fermentation, and extraction of key components from plants. Paracelsus the Swiss alchemist (often considered the first true botanist) was a great advocate and practitioner of spagyrics claiming that it was a more noble form of alchemy to be creating medicines rather than pursuing riches. (1)

The Chemistry of Alchemy
A gold nugget
A gold nugget

Before one mocks the pursuits of the alchemists, it should be noted that the study does have a basis in real science. Chemical processes can occur that transform one element into another, something that the alchemists knew. There was nothing at the time they were working telling them that lead or other common metals couldn't be turned into gold. (3) In fact, there are ways to "create" gold from common metals.


Distillation is the process of purifying liquids by vaporizing them and then condensing their vapors back into liquid form. It is applicable today in areas of power generation, alcohol production, water purification, medicinal products, and elsewhere. The first recorded to use the process of distillation are the Graeco-Egyptians, thousands of years ago. (7) Later the Muslim alchemists of the Middle Ages made a stride in the field when they discoverd how to use Sal Ammoniac which is basically ammonium chloride, that they attained through sublimation, in combination with several other compounds. This was important because once Sal Ammoniac was obtained, it could be used in a great many other reactions. For example the Muslim alchemists combined the Sal Ammoniac with pottasium aluminum sulphate, and mercury to create mercuric chloride. (7) This was a great advancement because it could be easily put into its liquid state and used as a chlorinating agent that could achieve the long sought for goal of breaking up matter into smaller and purer parts. It is also a great example of how the alchemists did sometimes take part in true chemistry. They were utilizing combination reactions. Today mercuric acid is created by reacting mercury, chlorine, and hydrochloric acid and also by heating mercury(III) sulfate and sodium chloride.HgNO3 + 2 HCl → HgCl2 + H2O + NO2(7)


"Transmutation is the act of changing a substance, tangible or intangible, from one form or state into another." (6) This was a very prevalent idea in the realm of alchemy as the central alchemical goal was to change metals such as lead directly into gold. Alchemists of yore were certain that it was possible and even saw some success at times. They sometimes attained small amounts of gold from the lead ore they performed various chemical procedures on. This however was misleading because the small amounts of gold they found must have been there before the reactions occurred since we know transmutation in the sense alchemists were thinking of is impossible. An element is distinguished from other elements mainly by the number of protons that it has within its nucleus (it's atomic number). For an element such as lead to be transmuted into gold, its atomic number would have to be shifted from 82 to 79. To transmute the lead would take extreme amounts of energy, far from what was available through the chemical reactions used by alchemists. (6) Today chemists use nuclear power to transmute and synthesize elements.

Gold Nitrate

A gold nitrate solution is a concentrated solution of gold nitrate. Gold nitrate and other rare earth solutions are often used in automotive catalysts, water treatment, textiles, lasers, and in many other commercial applications. (2) However, a gold nitrate solution can be used to make solid gold. Copper, a common metal, can be placed in the gold nitrate. Over time, through a single replacement reaction, the copper will be replaced by the gold in solution. at the end of the re action, one has solid gold, and copper nitrate. Gold is produced in this way in an alchemical sense; a common metal has been turned into gold. However, it is not profitable at all.

Alchemy in Modern Chemistry
Recycling Inspired by Alchemists?
Recycling Inspired by Alchemists?

Though a great deal of alchemy focused on impossible goals and did not have a specific method of even achieving those goals, some aspects of alchemy were scientific and helped lead the way towards actual chemical theories and advances. Primarily alchemy relates to modern metallurgy and medicine. Alchemists were the pioneers of separating iron from its ore to create workable material, applicable in a huge variety of areas. They made discoveries regarding the components of metal and classified different types and found which were more suitable for different jobs creating tools, jewelry, coins, weapons, among other things as well. (8) In the field of medicine alchemists did not make any astounding breakthroughs however they did manage to create certain remedies extracting components of plants that acted as pain-relievers or bloodclotters etc. The key point is that the alchemists (through spagyrics) experimented and extracted components of plants and observed their reactions on the human body. Besides medicine and metallurgy, the concept of alchemy has influenced modern ideas such as recycling. Alchemy is the mission to turn matter of less value into matter of greater value and recycling is exactly the same. Recycling takes garbage and turns it into useful items and such was the aim of the alchemists. (8)

(1) Gareth, and Lorri. "What Is Alchemy?" Astral Alchemy. Web. 04 June 2010. < >.

(2) American Elements. "Gold Nitrate Solution Supplier & Tech Info." Gold Nitrate Solution. American Elements. Web. 04 June 2010. < >.
(3) Moore, F. J., and William T. Hall. A History of Chemistry,. New York: McGraw-Hill Book, 1918. Print. International Chemical.
(4) Cockren, A. "History of Alchemy." Alchemy Lab. Web. 04 June 2010. < >.
(5) "Artephius." The Mystica. Web. 04 June 2010. < >
(6) Silva, Robert J. "Transmutation." Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. Web. 04 June 2010. < >.
(7) Parez-Pariente, Joaquin. "Alchemical Versus Chemical Use of Distillation Techniques And Materials: Their Mutual Influences And Divergent Developments." 6TH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON THE HISTORY OF CHEMISTRY. Web. 4 June 2010. < >.

(8) Joachim, M. J. "An Introduction to Alchemy." Helium - Where Knowledge Rules. Helium. Web. 04 June 2010. <