Trial by Fire

Lead oxides. The 16th-century Black Dragon experiment yields lead (II) oxide, the yellowest. (Andrew Lambert/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Lead oxides. The 16th-century Black Dragon experiment yields lead (II) oxide, the yellowest. (Andrew Lambert/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

A late 16th-century recipe, later published as The Bosome Book of Sir George Ripley (1683), describes the sericon approach in more detail. Thirty pounds of sericon must be dissolved in thirty gallons of vinegar. The resulting gum (or “Green Lion”) is then heated in a furnace. The recipe warns that the first vapor to come off will be “a faint Water. . . . Let it waste away.” The vapor is actually the water of crystallization boiling off, after which the white gum begins to blacken. Then the real business starts: “When you see a white Smoak or fume issue forth, then put too a Receiver of Glass.” This “white smoke” condenses to form the liquid the recipe calls the “blessed water.” This “water” is an important ingredient: the next step in making an elixir capable of transmuting base metals into gold. However, the recipe isn’t yet finished with the black powder—the “Black Feces” or “Black Dragon”—left in the flask. When the powder is tipped onto a marble block and ignited with a hot coal, the recipe promises that “the Fire will glide through the Feces within half an Hour, and Calcyne them into a Citrine Colour, very glorious to behold.”

In May 2012 I was contacted by a BBC4 producer. He hoped to film an alchemical experiment for a documentary about gold: A History of Art in Three Colours. Without much time to prepare historically authentic apparatus, Wothers and I end up doing a test run of the Black Dragon experiment, with a Bunsen burner standing in for an alchemical furnace and with off-the-shelf lead acetate. Sure enough, my receiving flask soon fills with the “white smoke,” which condenses to form the “blessed water.”

Of course, not everything goes according to plan. The flask sticks fast to the condensing tube. Had I used an authentic alchemical “lute” to seal my vessel rather than modern quick-fit glassware, this problem might have been avoided. However, the alchemists are clear on what to do in such cases: break the glass. Hoping that the heated lead powder does not immediately ignite when exposed to air (which it has a tendency to do), I smash the flask with a hammer, to the delight of the TV crew.

Fortunately, the Dragon waits for the hot coal before igniting. To our surprise, even using this modern setup, we reproduce the effect described in the 16th-century text: the hot coal touches the black powder, brightening it into golden yellow—a color that seems to flow across the surface of the lead.

Watching the leading edge of the transmutation sweep across the lead’s surface, I wonder how this effect appeared to a 17th-century audience. In modern terms some finely divided lead is simply reoxidizing into litharge (PbO). Yet, watching as the Black Dragon tinges into gold, it is hard to blame earlier “chymists” for taking such remarkable, and replicable, demonstrations as evidence of the transformative power of their art.

Jennifer Rampling is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge. In 2009 she was an Allington Fellow at CHF's Beckman Center.