It would be folly to suppose that the early magicians were merely fools or charletans. As a matter of fact, they were of many sorts. Some deluded themselves; some deluded others: but many were actually men of learning, ambitious students who sought in every way possible to increase their stores of wisdom. It was this class of investigators that, in the pursuit of natural magic, laid the foundations of a true science. As a rule, such men of ambition were lured on by that universal dream of the ancient learning, the transmutation of metals. One and all, they were seeking the philosopher's stone, that mighty substance which, at a touch, should dissolve baser metals into the original elements, and refashion them into gold.
Just as the magician was evolved out of the priest, so the alchemist was evolved out of the magician; and the work of the alchemist, despite its vagaries, was the beginning of physical science.
• The first and last endeavor of the alchemists, always, was to discover the philosopher's stone, by the magic of which every substance it touched might be changed into gold. Though their object was of this chimerical sort, their investigations in striving to attain it were so painstaking and so extensive that slowly, through passing centuries, they accumulated great stores of learning, which prepared the way for a later and saner science.
In the course of time, the work of the alchemists developed into a quest for the alkahest. This was an imaginary universal solvent, with a potence such that it would disintegrate anything with which it came in contact. Afterward, the alchemists concentrated their desire on the philosopher's stone under a new guise, the magisterium, by a touch of which all other metals might be transmuted into gold. Moreover, the magisterium was supposed to possess powers more subtlethan anyever attributed to the philosopher's stone; for it was believed that it could exert control over all organic structures, thus healing diseases, or even restoring life to a dead body. A somewhat later development of a similar idea among the alchemists led to extravagant visions of an elixir vitae. The wide influence which this dream exerted over the minds of men is historically witnessed in our own country by the wanderings of Ponce de Leon, in his search for the fountain of youth * * *. Thus, the ancient fancy is brought measurably close to us and to our own time.
The greatest legendary name in alchemy is that of Hermes Trismegistus. He stands as the personification of the early Egyptian culture, which was, in fact, the world culture of that age. Whatever there was of knowledge in those days was comprehended within the term Hermetic philosophy. That knowledge was carefully kept secret, its possession strictly limited to the chosen few, the adepts. It was an esoteric learning, and, as such, penetrated throughout the world. The wisdom was, indeed, so jealously guarded that the word hermetic supplies us with an adjective indicative of absolute secrecy.
The first alchemist of whom we have definite record was Gebir, an Arab, identified by the authorities of his own race as Jabir ibn Hayan, who flourished at Cufa near the end of the ninth century of our era. He was credited with the authorship of numerous volumes, both Arabic and Latin, which treated alchemical subjects. A careful examination of the evidence, however, seems to show that the Latin works were not written by him, but by later authors seeking the prestige of the great seer's name.
Albertus Magnus, who won world-wide and lasting repute as an alchemist, was a Dominican friar of Germany, living in the thirteenth century. He was probably the inventor of amalgam, although this discovery has been attributed also to St. Thomas Aquinas, his pupil.
Another distinguished alchemist was Raymond Lully, who was born on the island of Majorca, in 1235. He was the first to dissolve gold.
The greatest of the alchemists, in many ways, was Roger Bacon, the Englishman, who lived in the latter part of the thirteenth century. He was a Franciscan friar, devoted to the acquisition of every sort of learning. Naturally, considering the age in which he lived, he gave himself over chiefly to alchemical researches. His religious convictions, however, were strong enough to prevent his dabbling in sorcery after the fashion of most alchemists. Although he believed in astrology and the philosopher's stone, he openly and consistently flouted the practice of magic, whether white or black. "The Admirable Doctor," as he came to be called, was esteemed for his learning, but he raised up enemies by unsparing denunciations of current evils, which he did not hesitate to attack even within the church itself. He was for a time lecturer at Oxford University, but soon became embroiled with the authorities, who unjustly accused him of operations in magic. He was eventually imprisoned in Paris, and was forbidden to write. The attention of Pope Clement IV., however, had been attracted to the learned monk, and he expressed a desire to examine Bacon's works. It was in response to the request that the "Opus Majus" was written. This was sent to Clement, who, after a careful study of the volume, secured the release of the prisoner and his return to Oxford as a lecturer. Nevertheless, the experiences undergone by him had in no wise chastened the monk's fighting spirit. He promptly attacked the iniquities that prevailed within his own order, with the result that the general of the. Franciscans placed all his writings on the Index Expurgatorius, and he was cast into prison a second time, where he remained for 10 years. He was finally released and permitted to return to Oxford, but he died only two years afterward. He is celebrated not only for the wideness of his learning, but for the scientific exactness of his methods in the laboratory. He invented the magnifying glass and a rectified calendar.
The latest of the great alchemists was Paracelsus, as he is commonly known, although he was baptized Philippus Au-reolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. He was a Swiss physician, born in 1493. After a period of wandering as a student, he became the town physician at Basel, where he also lectured in the university. After two years, however, he left his chair in the university, by reason of serious differences which arose between him and the magistrates of the city. Thereafter, for a dozen years, he continued a wandering life, but eventually settled in Salzburg, where he died at the age of 48. The man had next to nothing in the way of morality, but he possessed a genius for research. It was he who first laid emphasis on the doctrine that all the life processes are chemical, and that, in consequence, each and every remedy for disease must be sought in chemistry. In his own practice as a physician he introduced many remedies of a chemical sort. He was, too, the discoverer of hydrogen. He was always an enthusiastic alchemist, but his mental clarity enabled him to divert much alchemical learning, which was wholly useless as such, into other directions where it might become available for scientific purposes. He was charletan of the charletans, but he had a splendid mind, which he employed in able accomplishment. He has been called the sublime drunkard of Hohenheim. The appellation is just, both as to the drunkard and the sublime.
As a scientific chemistry slowly evolved, alchemy, as was inevitable, fell into disrepute. Its false pretensions were derided, first by the few, then by the many, until the general opinion was that expressed by Surly in Ben Johnson's "Alchemist," who declares:
That alchemy is a pretty kind of game,
Somewhat like tricks o' the cards, to cheat a man,
The followers of chemical science, in their rejection of alchemical absurdities, resolved firmly to accept nothing save those things physically proven in their tests. The new spirit was definitely announced by Boyle in 1681, in his book entitled "The Skyptical Chymist" Henceforth, the attitude was to be one of utter skepticism toward anything not demonstrated in the laboratory.
Yet, chemistry never quite abandoned, in their entirety, the fascinating dreams of the alchemists. As late as 1811, Davy wrote:
"It is the duty of the chemist to be bold in pursuit * * *. He must recollect how contrary knowledge sometimes is to what appears to be experience * * *. To inquire whether the metals be capable of being decomposed and composed is a grand object of true philosophy."
Four years later came Faraday's declaration:
" To decompose the metals, to reform them, and to realize the once absurd notion of transmutation are the problems now given to the chemist for solution."
As late as 1912, Duncan, in The New Knowledge, says: "The alchemist became the chemist, and the chemist has become the alchemist."
Thus, by devious ways through a progress of ages, the art of fire has brought about that perfection of scientific labor which we know as chemistry. And now, in its turn, chemistry becomes the minister of pyrotechny, the art of aerial fire - for those important developments already begun, and for those others destined to multiply amazingly in the future.