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Alchemy: the art of changing, by means of a secret chemical process, base metals into precious. Probably the ancient nations, in their first attempts to melt metals, observing that the composition of different metals produced masses of a color unlike either,—for instance, that a mixture like gold resulted from the melting together of copper and zinc,—arrived at the conclusion, that one metal could be changed into another. At an early period, the desire of gold and silver grew strong, as luxury increased, and men indulged the hope of obtaining these rarer metals from the more common. At the same time, the love of life led to the idea of finding a remedy against all diseases, a means of lessening the infirmities of age, of renewing youth, and repelling death. The hope of realizing these ideas prompted the efforts of several men, who taught their doctrines through mystical images and symbols. To transmute metals, they thought it necessary to find a substance which, containing the original principle of all matter, should possess the power of dissolving all into its elements. This general solvent, or menstruum universale, which, at the same time, was to possess the power of removing all the seeds of disease out of the human body, and renewing life, was called the philosopher's stone, lapis philosophorum, and its pretended possessors adepts. The more obscure the ideas which the alchemists themselves had of the appearances occurring in their experiments, the more they endeavored to express themselves in symbolical language. Afterwards, they retained this phraseology, to conceal their secrets from the uninitiated. In Egypt, in the earliest times, Hermes, the son of Anubis, was ranked among the heroes, and many books of chemical, magical and alchemical learning are said to have been left by him. These, however, are of a later date. For this reason, chemistry and alchemy received the name of the Hermetic art. It is certain that the ancient Egyptians possessed particular chemical and metallurgical knowledge, although the origin of alchemy cannot, with certainty, be attributed to them. Several Grecians became acquainted with the writings of the Egyptians, and initiated in their chemical knowledge.
The fondness for magic, and for alchemy more particularly, spread afterwards among the Romans also. When true science was persecuted under the Roman tyrants, superstition and false philosophy flourished the more. The prodigality of the Romans excited the desire for gold, and led them to pursue the art which promised it instantaneously and abundantly. Caligula made experiments with a view of obtaining gold from orpiment. On the other hand, Diocletian ordered all books to be burned that taught to manufacture gold and silver by alchemy. At that time, many books on alchemy were written, and falsely inscribed with the names of renowned men of antiquity. Thus a number of writings were ascribed to Democritus, and more to Hermes, which were written by Egyptian monks and hermits, and which, as the Fabula Smaragdina, taught, in allegories, with mystical and symbolical figures, the way to discover the philosopher's stone. At a later period, chemistry and alchemy were cultivated among the Arabians. In the 8th century, the first chemist, commonly called Geber, flourished among them, in whose works rules are given for preparing quicksilver and other metals. In the middle ages, the monks devoted themselves to alchemy, although they were afterwards prohibited from studying it by the popes. But there was one, even among these, John XXII, who was fond of alchemy. Raymond Lully, or Lullius, was one of the most famous alchemists in the 13th and 14th centuries. A story is told of him, that, during his stay in London, he changed for king Edward I a mass of 50,000 pounds of quicksilver into gold, of which the first rose-nobles were coined. The study of alchemy was prohibited at Venice in 1488. Paracelsus, who was highly celebrated about 1525, belongs to the renowned alchemists, as do Roger Bacon, Basilius, Valentinus and many others. When, however, more rational principles of chemistry and philosophy began to be diffused, and to shed light on chemical phenomena, the rage for alchemy gradually decreased, though many persons, including some nobles, still remained devoted to it. Alchemy has, however, afforded some service to chemistry, and even medicine. Chemistry was first carefully studied by the alchemists, to whose labor and patience we are indebted for several useful discoveries; e. g. various preparations of quicksilver, mineral kermes, of porcelain, &c.—Nothing can be asserted with certainty about the transmutation of metals. Modern chemistry, indeed, places metals in the class of elements, and denies the possibility of changing an inferior metal into gold. Most of the accounts of such transmutation rest on fraud or delusion, although some of them are accompanied with circumstances and testimony which render them probable. By means of the galvanic battery, even the alkalies have been discovered to have a metallic base. The possibility of obtaining metal from other substances which contain the ingredients composing it, and of changing one metal into another, or rather of refining it, must, therefore, be left undecided. Nor are all alchemists to be considered impostors. Many have labored, under the conviction of the possibility of obtaining their object, with indefatigable patience and purity of heart (which is earnestly recommended by sound alchemists as the principal requisite for the success of their labors). Designing men have often used alchemy as a mask for their covetousness, and as a means of defrauding silly people of their money. Many persons, even in out days, destitute of sound chemical knowledge, have been led by old books on alchemy, which they did not understand, into long, expensive and fruitless labors. Hitherto chemistry has not succeeded in unfolding the principles by which metals are formed, the laws of their production, their growth and refinement, and in aiding or imitating this process of nature; consequently the labor of the alchemists, in search of the philosopher's stone, is but a groping in the dark.
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