photo of an ancient document showing some of the symbols commonly used by alchemists

Alchemical symbols

Understanding of the alchemists is hampered by their predilection for making their writings incomprehensible ( instant knowledge was not to be available to the uninitiated ) and the popular view that their quest was simply to isolate the Philosophers’ Stone and to use it to transform base metals into gold. There was in fact a genuine search for mental and spiritual advance

Using a world-view totally unlike that recognised today, the alchemists’ ideas of ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ were intermingled – the ability to use ‘spirit’ in their experiments was the difficult part.

alchemical symbol for gold

To transform copper to gold: – copper could be heated with sulphur to reduce it to its ‘basic form’ (a black mass which is in fact copper sulphide) – its ‘metallic form’ being ousted by the treatment. The idea of introducing the ‘form of gold’ to this mass by manipulating and mixing suitable quantities of spirit stymied alchemists for over fifteen centuries.

Whilst this transmutation of metals was the mainstream concern of alchemy, there emerged in the sixteenth century a school that brought the techniques and philosophies of alchemy to bear on the preparation of medicines, the main figures involved being PARACELSUS and JOHANN VAN HELMONT.

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Noticing that burning a candle in an upturned container, the open end of which is submerged in water, causes the water to rise into the container, Philon of Byzantium inferred correctly that some of the air in the container had been used up in the combustion. However, he proposed that this is because this portion of the air had been converted into ‘fire particles’, which were smaller than ‘air particles’.

In 1700 the German physician Georg Ernst Stahl (1660-1734) invoked ‘phlogiston’ to explain what happens when things burn. He suggested that a burning substance was losing an undetectable elementary principle analogous to the ‘sulfur’ of J’BIR IHBIN AYAM, which he re-named ‘phlogiston’. This could explain why a log (rich in phlogiston) could seem to be heavier than its ashes (deficient in phlogiston). The air that is required for burning served to transport the phlogiston away.

The English chemist JOSEPH PRIESTLY (1733-1804), although a supporter of the phlogiston theory, ironically contributed to its downfall. He heated mercury in air to form red mercuric oxide and then applied concentrated heat to the oxide and noticed that it decomposed again to form mercury whilst giving off a strange gas in which things burnt brightly and vigorously. He concluded that this gas must be ‘phlogiston poor’.

Priestly combined this result with the work of the Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819), who had found that keeping a mouse in an enclosed airtight space resulted in its death (by suffocation) and that nothing could be burnt in the enclosed atmosphere; he formed the idea that the trapped air was so rich in phlogiston that it could accept no more. Rutherford called this ‘phlogisticated air’ and so Priestly called his own gas ‘dephlogisticated air’.

In 1774 Priestley visited the French chemist ANTOINE LAVOISIER (1743-1794).
Lavoisier repeated Priestly’s experiments with careful measurements.
Reasoning that air is made up of a combination of two gases – one that will support combustion and life, another that will not; what was important about Lavoisier’s experiments was not the observation – others had reached a similar conclusion – but the interpretation.

Lavoisier called Priestley’s ‘dephlogisticated air’, ‘oxygene’, meaning ‘acidifying principle’, believing at the time that the active principle was present in all acids (it is not). He called the remaining, ‘phlogisticated’, portion of normal air, ‘azote’, meaning ‘without life’

Oxygen is the mirror image of phlogiston. In burning and rusting (the two processes being essentially the same) a substance picks up one of the gases from the air. Oxygen is consumed, there is no expulsion of ‘phlogiston’.

Lavoisier had been left with almost pure nitrogen, which makes up about four fifths of the air we breath. We now know azote as nitrogen. Rutherford’s ‘mephitic air’ was carbon dioxide.


Like phlogiston, caloric was a weightless fluid, rather like elemental fire, a quality that could be transmitted from one substance to another, so that the first warmed the second up.

It was believed that all substances contained caloric and that when a kettle was being heated over a fire, the fuel gave up its caloric to the flame, which passed it into the metal, which passed it on to the water. Similarly, two pieces of wood rubbed together would give heat because abrasion was releasing caloric trapped within.

What is being transmitted is heat energy. It was the crucial distinction between the physical and the chemical nature of substances that confused the Ancients and led to their minimal elemental schemes.





bust said to depict a likeness of Socrates

The speculative Greek philosophers, considering the great overarching principles that controlled the Cosmos, were handicapped by a reluctance to test their speculations by experimentation.
At the other end of the spectrum were the craftsmen who fired and glazed pottery, who forged weapons out of bronze and iron. They in turn were hindered by their reluctance to speculate about the principles that governed their craft.

WESTERN SCIENCE is often credited with discoveries and inventions that have been observed in other cultures in earlier centuries.
This can be due to a lack of reliable records, difficulty in discerning fact from legend, problems in pinning down a finding to an individual or group or simple ignorance.

The Romans were technologists and made little contribution to pure science and then from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance science regressed. Through this time, science and technology evolved independently and to a large extent one could have science without technology and technology without science.

Later, there developed a movement to ‘Christianise Platonism’ (Thierry of Chartres).

Platonism at its simplest is the study and debate of the various arguments put forward by the Greek philosopher PLATO (428/7-348/7 BCE).
The philosopher Plotinus is attributed with having founded neo-Platonism, linking Christian and Gnostic beliefs to debate various arguments within their doctrines. One strand of thought linked together three intellectual states of being: the Good (or the One), the Intelligence and the Soul. The neo-Platonic Academy in Greece was closed by the Emperor Justinian (CE 483-565) in CE 529.
During the early years of the Renaissance, texts on neo-platonism began to be reconsidered, translated and discoursed.

Aristotle’s four causes from the ‘Timaeus’ were attributed to the Christian God, who works through secondary causes (such as angels).

Efficient Cause – Creator – God the Father

Formal Cause – Secondary agent – God the Son

Material Cause – The four elements: earth, air, fire & water.
Because these four are only fundamental forms of the single type of matter, they cannot be related to any idea of ‘elements’ as understood by modern science – they could be transmuted into each other. Different substances, although composed of matter would have different properties due to the differing amounts of the qualities of form and spirit. Thus a lump of lead is made of the same type of matter (fundamental form) as a lump of gold, but has a different aggregation of constituents. Neither lead nor gold would contain much spirit – not as much as air, say, and certainly not as much as God, who is purely spiritual. ( ALCHEMY )

Final Cause – Holy Spirit

All other is ‘natural’ – underwritten by God in maintaining the laws of nature without recourse to the supernatural.
Science was the method for investigating the world. It involved carrying out careful experiments, with nature as the ultimate arbiter of which theories were right and which were wrong.

Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253) Bishop of Lincoln (Robert ‘Bighead’) – neo-platonic reading of Genesis – emanation of God’s goodness, like light, begins creation. Light is thus a vehicle of creation and likewise knowledge (hence ‘illumination’), a dimensionless point of matter with a dimensionless point of light superimposed upon it (dimensions are created by God). Spherical radiation of light carries matter with it until it is dissipated. Led to studies of optical phenomena (rainbow, refraction, reflection).

stained glass window depicting Robert Grosseteste (created 1896)

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LEONARDO FIBONACCI (c.1170-c.1250)

Also known as Leonardo Pisano. Published ‘Liber Abaci’ in 1202.

1202 – Italy

image of statue of Leonardo Fibonacci ©


Picture of a statue of Leonardo Pisano


‘A series of numbers in which each successive term is the sum of the preceding two’

For example:   1 , 1 , 2 , 3 , 5 , 8 , 13 , 21 , 34 , 55 , 89 , 144….

The series is known as the Fibonacci sequence and the numbers themselves as the Fibonacci numbers.

The Fibonacci sequence has other interesting mathematical properties – the ratio of successive terms ( larger to smaller;   1/1, 2/1, 3/2, 5/3, 8/5…. ) approaches the number 1.618
This is known as the golden ratio and is denoted by the Greek letter Phi.

Phi was known to ancient Greeks.
Greek architects used the ratio 1:Phi as part of their design, the most famous example of which is the Parthenon in Athens.

Fibonacci sequence in flower petals. flowers often have a Fibonacci number of petals - link to <>

Fibonacci sequence in flower petals

Phi also occurs in the natural world.
Flowers often have a Fibonacci number of petals.


During his travels in North Africa, Fibonacci learned of the decimal system of numbers that had evolved in India and had been taken up by the Arabs.
In his book Liber Abaci he re-introduced to Europe the Arabic numerals that we use today, adhering roughly to the recipe ‘the value represented must be proportional to the number of straight lines in the symbol’.

Following the Arabs, Fibonacci ( ‘son of the simpleton’ euph. or ‘son of the innocent’ ) introduced the place–value concept, with each position representing a different power of ten and these arranged in ascending order from right to left.

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ALBERTUS MAGNUS (c.1200- 80)

Graf von Bollstaadt – ‘The Universal Doctor’

Middle ages – Europe

‘The study of the natural world leads to a glorification of God’

portrait of Albertus Magnus


Bavarian philosopher, theologian and alchemist.
Wrote a paraphrase on ARISTOTLE and the Arabic comments on it. Responsible for a revival in Aristotelian thought.

Albert of Cologne was the eldest son of the Count of Bollsaadt. He studied in Padua and Paris, taught in Cologne and became a Dominican monk in 1223. He was made Bishop of Regensberg in 1260 but resigned two years later and spent the rest of his life teaching in Bavaria and the surrounding districts.
He died in 1280, was beatified in 1622, canonized as St. Albert the Great in 1931, and in 1941 was declared patron saint of all who cultivate the natural sciences.
His fame is due in part to the fact that he was the forerunner, guide and teacher of St.Thomas Aquinas; but Albert of Cologne was known as Albertus Magnus even in his own lifetime because of his prolific scientific writings and his great influence on the study of philosophy and theology.
His encyclopaedic compilation of all knowledge as understood at the time included his works Physica; Summa theologiae and De natura locorum and contained scientific treatises on alchemy, astronomy, mathematics, physiology, geography, economics, logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, phrenology, metaphysics and all branches of natural science.

detail from a portrait of ALBERTUS MAGNUS ©

Wrote on three realms of nature, De Animalibus, De Vegetablibus & De Mineralibus.
Concluded that fossils were phenomena or ‘games of nature’. Compiled a list of Aristotle’s errors.

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ROGER BACON (1214- 94)

(Doctor Mirabilis) ‘The Marvelous Doctor’

(Franciscan friar) Oxford – 1257

‘Mathematics (The first of the sciences, the alphabet of philosophy, door & key to the sciences), not Logic, should be the basis of all study’

Converted from Aristotelian to a neo-Platonist.

Etching of ROGER BACON Franciscan friar (1214- 94)


The Multiplication of Species; the means of causation (change) radiate from one object to another like the propagation of light.

‘An agent directs its effect to making the recipient similar to itself because the recipient is always potentially what the agent is in actuality.’

Thus heat radiating from a fire causes water placed near the fire,
but not in it, to become like the fire (hot). The quality of fire is multiplied in the water (multiplication of species).

All change may be analysed mathematically. Every multiplication is according to line, angles or figures. This thinking comes from the ninth century al-Kinde and his thoughts on rays and leads to a mathematical investigation into light.

Fear of the Mongols, Muslims and the Anti-Christ motivated the Franciscans. Franciscan neo-Platonism was based on Augustinian thought with a mathematical, Pythagorean, approach to nature. Bacon subscribed to this apocalyptical view, suffered trial and was imprisoned.
The Dominicans chose Aristotle – with a qualitative, non-mathematical approach to the world.

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Typographic resetting of Gutenberg's 42-line bible of 1452-55, using modern Fraktur and decorative initial in METAFONT by Yannis Haralambous. (Beginning of St. John's Gospel) from a LaTex advertising flyer.

1450 – Mainz, Germany

‘Movable type’


Hand-held block printing – a laborious process of carving whole pages of fixed text out of wooden slabs and reproducing copies using dies – had been used for many decades before the German inventor appeared. What Gutenberg mastered was the idea of placing individual metal letters – (his family background was in minting and metalworking, an ideal foundation for his training as an engraver and goldsmith. His skills enabled him to craft the first individual metal letter moulds) – into temporary mounts, which could then be dismantled or ‘moved’ once a page of text had been completed and reused to produce other pages.

In comparison to engraving and the single use of wooden blocks, the theoretically infinite number of sides which could be made out of a set of metal characters, together with the speed at which a template could be created, revolutionised printing and the spread of the printed word.

engraving of Johannes Gutenberg

Gutenberg printing press. Johannes Gutenberg (c. 13951468) invented the printing press sometime in the mid-fifteenth century. The moveable printing blocks it employed made it far simpler to operate than the complicated machinery of the Far East

Some sources credit the Chinese with inventing moveable type printing, using characters made of wood. What is notable is the quality of Gutenberg’s metal casts and press – they are almost as important as the idea of moveable type itself.

By the end of the fifteenth century tens of thousands of books and pamphlets were already in existence, giving academics the opportunity to share scientific knowledge widely and cheaply.

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