The Secrets of Alchemy

Pages from Les origines de l'alchimie, an 1885 text on the history of alchemy by Marcellin Berthelot. (Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF)

Pages from Les origines de l'alchimie, an 1885 text on the history of alchemy by Marcellin Berthelot. (Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF)

John considers this “burning water” the “fifth essence” of the wine, its quinta essentia in Latin. (Quintessence is a word still used to express the finest, purest, and most concentrated essence of a thing.) John borrows the word from Aristotelian natural philosophy, where it represents a substance different from and greater than the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth), namely, the imperishable and eternal material from which everything beyond the moon, such as the stars and planets, is made. The implication is that this terrestrial quintessence of wine is similarly impervious to decay. While this might sound outlandish, John almost certainly based his belief on empirical evidence—he notes how meat left in the open air quickly begins to rot, but when immersed in alcohol it is preserved indefinitely. He may also have noticed that while wine quickly degrades into vinegar, distilled alcohol remains unchanged. It is this stability and preservative power that John tries to turn to medicinal use.

Cyprien Thèodore Tiffereau, Alchemist of the 19th Century
(Excerpted from pp. 93–94)

Some 19th-century practitioners headed in new methodological directions. They continued to pursue metallic transmutation, but in new ways that often drew on contemporaneous scientific discoveries. In the mid-1850s, for example, the chemist and photographer Cyprien Thèodore Tiffereau (1819–after 1898) presented a series of papers to the Academy of Sciences in Paris outlining how, while in Mexico, he had succeeded in turning silver into gold using common reagents. He maintained that the metals were actually compounds of hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen and were therefore interchangeable by altering the relative proportions of these components. This idea is of course analogous to the ancient Mercury-Sulfur theory of metallic composition, but it also reflects chemical debates of the time. Recent discoveries had compelled many mid-19th-century chemists to seriously reconsider the possible composite nature of the metals. Well-respected chemists who supported the compound nature of metals openly speculated that the alchemical dream of metallic transmutation might in fact soon be realized. Thus, despite their estrangement in the 18th century, alchemy and chemistry did—in some periods—reestablish intellectual contact. One journalist expressed this striking mid-19th-century rapprochement by writing in 1854 that “after having poured out so much scorn upon her, in our day chemistry is moving towards joining with alchemy.”

Under such conditions, the Academy of Sciences was more open to claims of metallic transmutation than it would have been previously. It not only invited Tiffereau to its assembly to present his results but also organized an official committee to examine his claims. Unfortunately for Tiffereau, neither he nor others could replicate his results in Paris. He returned to a quiet private life as a photographer. In 1889, however, he reemerged from obscurity, and began to give public lectures about his findings, at which he displayed the gold he had produced in Mexico. The popular press ran excited columns about this “alchemist of the nineteenth century.” In 1891, drawing on recent work in biology and microscopy, Tiffereau proposed that the transmutations he had observed in Mexico were brought about by microbial action. He ascribed the failure of his processes in Paris to the absence of the requisite airborne microorganisms that had been present in Mexico (near the precious metal deposits, where they ordinarily existed).

On the other side of the Atlantic in the 1890s, an entrepreneurial chemist and mining engineer named Stephen Emmens offered the United States Treasury a method of turning silver into gold. Independent tests were made of his method (which involved hammering Mexican silver) both in the United States and in England, but the results were not encouraging.

These examples of transmutational alchemy’s continuation after its 18th-century “demise” probably form only the visible tip of the iceberg. Archival manuscripts bear witness to many more experimenters, and undoubtedly a much larger number left no trace of their activities. When writing his history of alchemy in 1854, Louis Figuier appended an entire chapter about hopeful mid-19th-century practitioners. He noted the large number of them active in France, especially in Paris, described their ideas at length, and visited their laboratories. There remain many very serious (and some not-so-serious) investigators at work on gold making today.

Lawrence Principe is Drew Professor of the Humanities in the Department of the History of Science and Technology and the Department of Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. He was the 2001–2002 Othmer Fellow at CHF's Beckman Center. His new book, The Secrets of Alchemy, is out this month.