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History of Chemistry: Alchemy

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Alchemy is a term used to describe the historical study of elements and matter with the goal of creating an elixir for immortality or trying to change metals into more precious metals.

Alchemy is an old term used to describe the manipulation of matter. It comes from the old French term ‘alkimie’ and the Arabic ‘al-kimiya’ which translates as fusing or casting metals. Alchemy is the forefather of modern chemistry and includes the influences of many countries across the world from China and India in the east to Egypt and Greek empires in the west, through to medieval times.


Alchemy had many aims but primarily was used to describe the manipulation of materials and the practice of chemistry as it was known. One branch of alchemy was transmutation the turning of base metals such as lead into precious metals like gold. We know today that this is not possible as to change one element into another we would have to change the number of protons. The closest we can get to this is nuclear fusion where the nucleus of an element is collided with another to form larger elements, but we cannot do this on earth yet due to the large temperatures and pressures required, the only place we know of that this occurs is in the sun when hydrogen atoms are combined to form helium. We can break atoms down into different element by the process of radioactive decay but this can be dangerous and hard to control.


Alchemy also focused on the creation of elixirs and potions for humans. A common pursuit of alchemists throughout history was the creation of a potion for immortality or the philosophers stone, a proposed elixir or element that would allow the user to live forever. There was also a big focus on the creation of a universal medicine (panacea) that would cure all diseases and heal the body and soul. Whilst this was never possible it did aid our understanding of medicine and the use of drugs in treatments.

Terms in section
Alchemy

Alchemy is the term given to old historical practices and experiments people used to conduct into materials and their properties before modern scientific techniques were discovered.

Forefather

A forefather is something that has come before and is usually the basis for some discoveries.

Transmutation

Transmutation is term used to describe the changing of one metal into another.

Precious

A precious metal is a metal that has a high value commonly elements like gold, silver and platinum.

Elixir

An elixir is a potion or mixture of liquids that was viewed as important to discover as it would cure diseases.

Immortality

Immortality is the term given to when a person would live forever and never die.

Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission is the process of splitting up large atoms to release heat energy to be used in the generation of electricity

Element

Elements are atoms with the same number of protons in the nucleus

Proton

A proton is a positive particle that makes up the atom in the nucleus with a positive charge

Panacea

A panacea is an old word to describe a chemical or discovery that would cure all illnesses.

Blackpowder

Black powder is a term used to describe gun powder a chemical that when discovered in china and a flame put near it would explode releasing a lot of energy.

Jabir Ibn Hayyan

Jabir Ibn Hayyan was a famous Islamic philosopher, scientist and scholar who discovered many different scientific techniques and chemicals in the 8th century.

Alchemist

An alchemist is the term given to a scientist who practiced the investigation of materials and changing of elements but not using very scientific techniques.

Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear fusion is a process which occurs in. the sun. Hydrogen atoms under a lot of heat and pressure are forced together to make a larger atom of helium

Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle was an English philosopher who is considered as the first chemist due to his experimental techniques who discovered the link between changing a gases pressure and its volume.

Distillation

Distillation is a separation technique that can be used to separate out liquids from each other by their boiling points.

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