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.





1621 – Brussels, Belgium



‘There are gases other than air’

Van Helmont coined the term ‘gas’.

He hypothesised that the proof that matter is made entirely of water was provided by his experiment of growing a tree-shoot in a weighed quantity of soil and finding that the weight of the tree increased by over a thousand fold whilst that of the soil decreased only slightly. He failed to consider the contribution of the air.

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1766 – England

‘Three Papers Containing Experiments On Factitious Airs’

(gases made from reactions between liquids and solids)

1798 – Density of the earth
Using a torsion balance and the application of NEWTON’s theory of gravity, Cavendish concluded that the earth’s density was 5.5 times that of water.

Born of the English aristocracy and inheritor of a huge sum of money half way through his life, Cavendish is remembered for his work in chemistry.
He demonstrated that hydrogen (inflammable air) and carbon dioxide (fixed air) were gases distinct from ‘atmospheric air’. His claim to the discovery that water was not a distinct element – a view held since the time of ARISTOTLE – but a compound made from two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen, became confused with similar observations made by ANTOINE LAVOISIER.

Full length drawing of Henry Cavendish  &copy:


1871 – England

Almost all his discoveries remained unpublished until the late nineteenth century when his notes were found and JAMES CLERK MAXWELL dedicated himself to publishing Cavendish’s work, a task he completed in 1879.
By then many potential breakthroughs, significant at the time, had been surpassed by history.

In 1871 the endowment of the Cavendish Laboratory was made to Cambridge University by Cavendish’s legatees.

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ANAXIMANDER of MILETUS (c.611 – c.547 BCE)

‘Apeiron is the basis of all matter’

mosaic of Anaximander


A pupil of THALES of MILETUS. As with Thales, little is known about Anaximander’s life and most of what we know comes from later Greeks, notably Aristotle and Theophrastus.
Anaximander conceptualised the Earth as suspended completely unsupported at the centre of the universe. It had been assumed by other thinkers that the Earth was a flat disc held in place by water, pillars or some other physical structure. Although without a notion of gravity, Anaximander supported his argument by supposing that the Earth, being at the centre of the universe, at equal distances from the extremes,

‘has no inclination to move up rather than down or sideways; and since it is impossible to move in opposite directions at the same time, it necessarily stays where it is’ – ( ARISTOTLE explaining Anaximander’s theory).

Moreover, because the Earth was suspended freely, it allowed Anaximander to propose the idea that the sun, moon and stars orbited in full circles around the Earth.

Anaximander proposed the idea of space or a universe with depth. Rather than the view of the Earth caged in a planetarium style ‘celestial vault’, he argued the celestial bodies (the sun, moon and stars) were different distances away from the Earth, with space or air between them.

Picture of head of statue said to depict ANAXIMENES ©


ANAXIMENES of MILETUS (c.585 – c.528 BCE)

‘AIR is the basis of all matter’



HERACLEITUS of EPHESUS (c.535 – c.475 BCE)

‘FIRE is the basis of all matter’

Thales’ pupil Anaximander avoided the issue of ‘prote hyle‘, or first matter by contending that all materials were composed of apeiron, the indefinite and unknowable first substance. Wanting to understand the transformations observed daily in the world, Anaximander believed that change came about through the agency of contending opposite qualities; hot and cold, and dry and moist.