Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sir Isaac Newton's Belief In Alchemy by John Timbs 1869


Sir Isaac Newton's Belief In Alchemy by John Timbs 1869

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We gather from a chapter in Sir David Brewster's Life of Sir Isaac Newton some testimony to Sir Isaac's belief in Alchemy, and his early taste for practical chemistry, which he doubtless first acquired during his residence with Mr. Clark the apothecary at Grantham. In April 1669, he records the purchase in London of "aqua fortis, sublimate, oyle pink, fine silver, antimony, vinegar, spirit of wine, white lead, salt of tartar, together with a furnace and an air-furnace."

Sir David says, "in Newton's chemical studies his mind was impressed with some belief in the doctrines of Alchemy, and he certainly pursued his experiments to a late period of his life, with the hope of effecting some valuable transmutations." Among the subjects which he requests his young friend Mr. Aston, about to make a tour on the Continent, to pay attention to, there are several which indicate this tendency of Newton's mind. "He desires him to observe the products of nature, especially in mines, with the circumstances of mixing and of extracting metals or minerals out of their ores, and refining them; and, what he considered of far more importance than this, he wishes him to observe if there were any transmutations out of one species into another; as, for example, out of iron into copper, out of one salt into another, or into an insipid body, &c. Such transmutations," he adds, "are above all others worth his noting, being the most luciferous, and many times luciferous experiments too, in philosophy!" He also names "a certain vitriol which changes iron into copper," and which is said to be kept a secret for the lucrative purposes of effecting that transmutation. He is to inquire also whether in Hungary, or in the mountains of Bohemia, there are rivers whose waters are impregnated with gold, dissolved by some corrosive fluid like aqua regis; and whether the practice of laying mercury in the rivers till it be tinged with gold, and then separating the gold by straining the mercury through leather, be still a secret or openly practised. There was at this time in Holland a notorious alchemist of the name of Bory, who, as Sir Isaac says, was some years since imprisoned by the Pope, in order to extort from him secrets of great worth both as to medicine and profit, and who made his escape into Holland, where they granted him a guard. "I think," adds Sir Isaac, "he usually goes clothed in green. Pray inquire what you can of him, and whether his ingenuity be any profit to the Dutch!" Whatever were the results of Mr. Aston's inquiries, they did not damp the ardour of Newton in his chemical researches, nor extinguish the hope which he seems to have cherished of making "philosophy luciferous by transmuting the baser metals into gold."

The Rev. Mr. Law has stated that there were found among Sir Isaac's papers large extracts out of Jacob Behmen's works, written with his own hand; and that he had learned from undoubted authority that in a former part of his life he was led into a search of the Philosopher's Tincture from the same author. He afterwards stated in a private letter that his vouchers are names well known, and that they have assured him that "Sir Isaac was formerly so deep in Jacob Behmen, that he, together with Dr. Newton, his relative, set up furnaces, and were for several months at work in quest of the Tincture. That this statement is substantially true is proved by Dr. Newton's own letter, in which he says: 'About six weeks at spring, and at ye fall, ye fire in the elaboratory scarcely went out, which was well furnished with chymical materials, as bodyes, receivers, heads, crucibles, &c, which was made very little use of, ye crucibles excepted, in which he fused his metals. He would sometimes, tho' very seldom, look into an old mouldy book which lay in his elaboratory. I think it was titled Agricola de Metallis; the transmuting of metals being his chief design, for which purpose antimony was a great ingredient. Near his elaboratory was his garden His brick furnaces, pro re naia, he made and altered himself, without troubling a bricklayer.'"

Sir David Brewster has seen, in Newton's handwriting, The Metamorphoses of the Planets, by John de Monte Snyders, in sixty-two pages quarto; also, a Key to the same work, and numerous pages of alchemist poetry from Norton's Ordinal and Basil Valentine's Mystery of the Microcosm. There is also a copy of Secrets Revealed; or, an open entrance to the Shut Palace of the King, which is covered with notes in Sir Isaac's hand, in which great changes are made upon the language and meaning of the thirty-five chapters of which it consists. Sir David has likewise found amongst Sir Isaac's papers a beautifully written but incomplete copy of William Yworth's Processus Mysterii magni Philosophicus, and also a small manuscript in his handwriting entitled Thesaurus Thesaurorum sive Medicina Aurea.

Newton too left behind him, in his note-books and separate Mss., copious extracts from the writings of the alchemists of all ages, and a very large Index Chemicus and Supplementum Indicis Chernici, with minute references to the different subjects to which they relate.

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