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History of Chemistry


Alchemy is where Chemistry came from

Alechemy is commonly thought of as being pseudo-science, but that’s not quite right. That view comes from projecting modern-day beliefs, assumptions and knowledge back on people who lived 500 or 1000 years ago. Yes, many ideas of the alchemists are now known to be wrong, but there never was one specific alchemical worldview: People in different places and times did real-world experiments, recorded their results, and sometimes shared their ideas with each other.

Alchemy is better thought of as being proto-scientific: It had some features of science, but not all.

“In the philosophy of science, there are several definitions of protoscience – [it is about]  the earliest eras of the history of science, when the scientific method was still nascent. Thus, in the late 17th century and early 18th century, Isaac Newton contributed to the dawning sciences of chemistry and physics, even though he was also an alchemist who sought chrysopoeia in various ways including some that were unscientific.”
[Wikipedia, Protoscience, 1/19]

Alchemy covered many scientific topics, including what we now call: astronomy, chemistry, medicine metallurgy, physics

It included many religious, non-scientific concepts: astrology, magic, mysticism


“The word alchemy comes from Old French alquemie, alkimie, used in Medieval Latin as alchymia. This name was itself brought from the Arabic word al-kīmiyā’ (الكيمياء‎ or الخيمياء‎) composed of two parts: the Late Greek term khēmeía (χημεία), khēmía (χημία), meaning ‘to fuse or cast a metal’,  and the Arabic definite article al- (الـ‎), meaning ‘The’.
– [Wikipedia, Alchemy, 1/19]

The methods of Alchemy

A. Followed some parts of the scientific method, but not all.

B. It was more of a belief based system – alchemists often came up with conclusions, and then performed experiments to prove that their conclusions were true.

1. They rarely admitted that they were incorrect. They rarely changed their opinions.

2. They did take notes. Later alchemists built upon the findings of the earlier ones. Slowly, some scientific knowledge was developed.

Beliefs of alchemy

A. Many alchemists believed everything in the world was made of only four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water

By combining these elements in different ways, they thought that everything we see in the world around us could be created. This general idea, it is noted, is similar to the modern view, in which all matter is built from elements, denoted on the periodic table.

Goals of Alchemy

Much of this work was a lot like modern science. People performed experiments to learn something.

However, there were often additional religious, philosophical, or magic-inspired goals. For instance, a major goal was the transmutation of any metal into either gold or silver.

Alchemistrs never proved that this was possible. Rather, they assumed that it must be so. Psychologists know this is a common phenomenon: When people want
something to be true, they convince themselves that it must be real.

We now know that this goal is impossible. No chemical reaction can convert one metal
into another metal. However, it’s possible for a nuclear reaction to convert one metal into another metal. This could never happen by mixing chemicals. This would only happen inside an exploding star, or inside a particle accelerator.

Many believed that they could discover a “panacea”, a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases, and prolong life. The “Philosopher’s stone” was believed by some people to be a key ingredient in these goals. Again, they never proved that this was possible. Rather, they just assumed that it was.

Some alchemists wanted to find a way to mix chemicals to create animals – even human life. They never proved that this was possible. They assumed that it must be so.

Some wanted to find ways to transform common rocks (“ores”) into useful metals. This is a part of modern-day science; this is possible. However, what we do is extract small amounts of useful metal from the rocks they are within.

Obtaining perfection

The transmutation of base metals into gold symbolized an endeavour toward perfection.

Many alchemists believed that the universe was tending towards a state of perfection. Gold, due to its immunity to decay, was considered to be the most perfect material. By attempting to transmute base metals into gold, they were trying to give the universe a
helping hand.

Reinterpretation: Over time, the goals of alchemy were understood in new ways.

Some people came to believe that these goals of alchemy were really metaphors for a spiritual transformation of one’s own self. These books redefined old words in new ways:

the Philosopher’s Stone = a gift that every man potentially has unto himself

Transmutation = the process that transform the alchemist by studying sciences

Panacea = the true meaning of love and science.

Up to the 18th century, alchemy was considered real science

A. Isaac Newton devoted more of his time alchemy than he did to physics

B. The decline of alchemy began in the 18th century with the birth of modern chemistry

1. We realized that we had to make fewer assumptions

3. Just because we want something to be possible, doesn’t mean that it is possible.

4. No more assuming that one could turn base metals into gold. One could ask if this
was possible, but one could not simply say that it must be true.

5. No more assuming that there was some magical philosopher’s stone.

6. Everything was due to strict cause and effect: if something happens, then there
should be a step-by-step explanation that is rational.

History of Chemistry – The 1700’s

See the PBS NOVA special, “Absolute Zero” (2008)

Air-conditioning, refrigeration, and superconductivity are just some of the ways technology has put cold to use. But what is cold, how do you achieve it, and how cold can it get? NOVA explores these and other facets of the frigid in two one-hour programs.

NOVA brings the history of this frosty subject to life with historical recreations of great moments in low-temperature research and interviews with noted historians and scientists… The program is based on the definitive book on cold: Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold by Tom Shachtman. It opens in the 1600s when the nature of cold and even heat were a complete mystery. Are they different phenomena or aspects of some unified feature of nature? Are they added to a substance or qualities of the substance itself? The experiments that settled these questions helped stoke the Industrial Revolution… Antoine Lavoisier’s battle with Count Benjamin Rumford over the caloric theory of heat, an intellectual contest set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, in which Lavoisier unfortunately lost his head; and Michael Faraday’s explosive experiments to liquefy gases, which established the principles that make refrigerators possible.

NOVA Absolute Zero, questions

In the PBS NOVA special, “Einstein’s Big Idea” we learn about Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), French scientist who discovered law of conservation of mass, working with his wife, Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier. And also Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749), the French mathematician and physicist who studied, among other topics, kinetic energy.

Lesson: A love story of Physics, History and Chemistry

History of Chemistry – The 1800’s


History of Chemistry – The 1900’s


Related reading

Alchemy May Not Have Been the Pseudoscience We All Thought It Was

Although scientists never could quite turn lead into gold, they did attempt some noteworthy experiments

By Richard Conniff, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2014


Learning Standards

Next Generation Science Standards
Connections to Nature of Science: Science Models, Laws, Mechanisms, and Theories Explain Natural Phenomena.
A scientific theory is a substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment, and the science community validates each theory before it is accepted. If new evidence is discovered that the theory does not accommodate, then the theory is generally modified in light of this new evidence. (HS-ESS1-2),(HS-ESS1-6)

Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework

The roots of Western civilization: Ancient Greece, C. 800-300 BCE.
7.34 Describe the purposes and functions of development of Greek institutions such as the lyceum, the gymnasium, and the Library of Alexandria, and identify the major accomplishments of the ancient Greeks.

WHI.33 Summarize how the Scientific Revolution and the scientific method led to new theories of the universe and describe the accomplishments of leading figures of the Scientific Revolution, including Bacon, Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, and

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework

Understandings about the Nature of Science (Crosscutting Concepts):  Science knowledge has a history that includes the refinement of, and changes to, theories, ideas, and beliefs over time.

Science Is a Human Endeavor:  Scientific knowledge is a result of human endeavor, imagination, and creativity. Individuals and teams from many nations and cultures have contributed to science and to advances in engineering.

New York State Grades 9-12 Social Studies Framework


9.9d The development of the Scientific Revolution challenged traditional authorities and beliefs.  Students will examine the Scientific Revolution, including the influence of Galileo and Newton.

History–Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

7.11 Students analyze political and economic change in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries (the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Reason).

2. Discuss the exchanges of plants, animals, technology, culture, and ideas among Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the
major economic and social effects on each continent.

4. Explain how the main ideas of the Enlightenment can be traced back to such movements as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution and to the Greeks, Romans, and Christianity.

AP World History

Unit III (600 to 1450), Islamic Civilization, Islamic Art, Science, and Technologies

Key Concept 5.1 Industrialization and Global Capitalism

I. Industrialization fundamentally changed how goods were produced.

“E. The period of production from the mid-nineteenth century to World War I is often called the “Second Industrial Revolution.” Although the basic principles of industrialization remained the same, this period perfected the production of steel which in turn led to the rise of tall buildings in cities and more precise machinery to produce more complex goods. This period also saw great advancements in chemistry and medicine, in electrical motors and the internal combustion engine. ”

Key Concept 6.1 Science and the Environment




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