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1.3: Alchemy

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    A common area of technology to societies of the past was metallurgy. Useful tools could be made with metallurgy that would last for a long time. Weapons could stay sharp longer with improved metals. Precious metals, such as gold and silver, could be refined and used for jewelry or for money. Because it was fairly rare, gold was considered to be very valuable, and became a common means of paying for goods and services.

    However, mining for gold is a slow, dirty, and dangerous process. Not everyone owns a gold mine—in both the ancient Egyptian society and during the Roman Empire, the gold mines were the property of the state, not an individual or group. There were few ways for most people to legally get any gold for themselves.


    Chemistry is a subject that has its roots in the ancient tradition known as alchemy, from which it derives its name. Alchemy was a combination of philosophy and science that had both practical and mystical aspects. The goals of alchemy were varied and difficult to summarize. In many ways, the alchemists sought to achieve perfection, through such actions as the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life (Figure below). The philosopher’s stone, it was believed, was a substance that was capable of being used to turn base metals (such as lead) into gold. It was also believed that it could be used to achieve rejuvenation and perhaps immortality. While alchemists did not ultimately succeed in these quests, their work provided the foundation for the modern study of chemistry.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): This painting by Joseph Wright (1771) is titled “The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone.” (Credit: Joseph Wright of Derby / Derby Museum and Art Gallery; Source: in new window); License: Public Domain)

    Many of the specific approaches that alchemists used when they tried changing lead into gold are vague and unclear. Each alchemist had their own code for recording data. The processes were kept secret so that others could not profit from them. Different scholars developed their own set of symbols as they recorded the information they came up with. Many alchemists were not very honest, and sometimes took advantage of noblemen by taking money and claiming to be able to make gold from lead, then left town in the middle of the night. On occasion, the nobleman would detect the fraud and have the alchemist hung. By the 1300s, several European rules had declared alchemy to be illegal, and set out strict punishments for those practicing the alchemical arts.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Alchemist recipe. (Credit: Kenelm Digby;
    Source: in new window); License: Public Domain)

    Alchemist Contributions to Chemistry

    Alchemists laid the groundwork for many chemical processes, such as the refining of ores, the production of gunpowder, the manufacture of glass and ceramics, leather tanning, and the production of inks, dyes, and paints. Alchemists also made the first attempts at organizing and classifying substances so that they could better understand their reactions and be able to predict the products of their experiments. This eventually led to the modern periodic table, which you will learn about in a later chapter. Alchemy began to fully evolve into chemistry in the 17th century, with a greater emphasis on rational thought and experimentation and less emphasis on spirituality and mysticism.

    The alchemists were never successful in changing lead into gold, but modern nuclear physics can accomplish this task. Lead is subjected to nuclear bombardment in a particle accelerator. A small amount of gold can be obtained by this process. However, the cost of the procedure is far more than that of the amount of gold obtained. So, the dream of the alchemists has never (and will never) come true.


    • Gold has been considered valuable by all civilizations.
    • The alchemists tried to find the philosopher's stone that would allow them to make gold from lead.
    • The alchemists did not successfully transform lead into gold.
    • The alchemists laid the ground work for many advances to the new science of chemistry.


    1. Why is gold considered to be valuable?
    2. Who owned the gold mines during the ancient Egyptian and Roman civilizations?
    3. What is the elixir of life?
    4. What contributions to modern chemistry were made by the alchemists?

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