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Chemistry LibreTexts

1.9: 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.


    The alchemists were a varied group of scholars and charlatans whose goal was two-fold: to create the Philosopher's Stone (which caused the transmutation of lead into gold), and to discover the Elixir of Life (bestowing immortality on the person who possessed it). The origin of the term "alchemy" is uncertain. There are roots to Greek, Arabic, and ancient Egyptian words. Three major streams of alchemy are known: Chinese, Indian, and European—with all three streams having some factors in common. We will not focus on the philosophical or religious aspects of alchemy, but will look briefly at the techniques developed in the European stream that ultimately influenced the development of the science of chemistry.

    Typical alchemist lab.

    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.

    Alchemist recipe.

    Alchemist Contributions to Chemistry

    Out of all this secrecy, however, came several contributions to modern-day chemistry. Early acids and bases were discovered. Glassware for running chemical reactions was developed. Alchemy helped improve the study of metallurgy and the extraction of metals from ores. More systematic approaches to research were developed, although the idea of orderly scientific experimentation had not yet become well-established. The groundwork was laid for the development of chemistry as a foundational science.

    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 (no one was able to achieve this).
    • The alchemists did contribute many advances to the modern science of chemistry.

    Contributors and Attributions

    • CK-12 Foundation by Sharon Bewick, Richard Parsons, Therese Forsythe, Shonna Robinson, and Jean Dupon.

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