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.





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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1609-19 – Germany

‘1600 – Kepler works in Prague with TYCHO BRAHE the imperial mathematician, under the patronage of Rudolph II
1601 – On Brahe’s death, Kepler inherits his position (and crucially, his astronomical notes)’

portrait of KEPLER ©


  • First Law: The planets move in elliptical orbits with the Sun at one focus

  • Second Law: The straight line joining the Sun and any planet sweeps out equal areas in equal periods of time

  • Third Law: The squares of orbital periods of the planets are proportional to the cube of their mean distances from the Sun

Modern measurements of the planets show that they do not precisely follow these laws; however, their development is considered a major landmark in science.

Kepler’s ardent faith in the Copernican system – ‘The Sun not only stands at the centre of the universe, but is its moving spirit’, he asserted – brought him the disfavour of religious leaders. With his realisation that the planets do not rotate in perfect circles but in fact orbit in an ellipse, he provided the mathematical explanation for planetary motion, which had eluded Copernicus and Ptolemy.

The first two laws were published in 1609 ( Astronomia Nova – New Astronomy ) and the third in 1619 ( Harmonicses Mundi – Harmonics of the World ). Their publication put an end to PTOLEMY’s cycles & epicycles. His work provided the observational and arithmetical proof to support COPERNICUS‘ theories.

His second law states that an imaginary line between the Sun and the planets sweeps out an equal area in equal periods of time.

Stating that the planets ‘sweep’ or cover equal areas in equal amounts of time regardless of which location of their orbit they are in means that, as the Sun is only one of two centres of rotation in a planet’s orbit, a planet is nearer to the Sun at some times than at others. Thus the planet must speed up when it is nearer the Sun and slow down when it is further away.

His third law finds that the period (the time for one complete orbit – a year for the Earth, for instance) of a planet squared is the same as the distance from the planet to the Sun cubed (in astronomical units). This allows distances of planets to be worked out from observing their cycles alone.

Kepler was a versatile genius who, besides discovering these three laws, compiled tables of star positions ( Tabulae Rudolphinae – 1627 ) and developed the astronomical telescope.

Kepler also studied the anatomy of the human eye and founded the science of geometrical optics ( ‘Dioptrics’ – 1611 ), proposing the ray theory of light after ALHAZEN’s discussion in Opticae Thesaurus ; he described the eye in the same terms – as a pinhole camera, with light entering through the pupil and forming an image of the outside world on the retina at the back of the eye.

His credible solution to predicting planetary motion would act as the stimulus for questions that would lead to ISAAC NEWTON‘s theory of gravity.

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1640 – Italy

‘Together with VINCENZO VIVIANI (1622-1703) realised that the weight of air pushing on a reservoir of mercury can force the liquid to rise into a tube that contains no air; that is, a vacuüm’

In 1650 OTTO VON GUERICKE (1602-1686) invented an air pump and showed that if you remove the air from the centre of two hemispheres that are resting together, the pressure of the outside air is sufficient to prevent a team of horses from pulling them apart.

1657 – Formed the Accademia del Cimento with eight other Florentines to build their own apparatus and conduct experiments to advance the pursuit of knowledge. Disbanded after ten years as a condition of its patron Leopoldo de Medici’s appointment as cardinal, its dissolution followed Galileo’s trial by the Catholic Church and marked the decline of free scientific research in Italy.

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1684 – Germany

‘A new method for maxima and minima, as well as tangents … and a curious type of calculation’

Newton invented calculus (fluxions) as early as 1665, but did not publish his major work until 1687. The controversy continued for years, but it is now thought that each developed calculus independently.
Terminology and notation of calculus as we know it today is due to Leibniz. He also introduced many other mathematical symbols: the decimal point, the equals sign, the colon (:) for division and ratio, and the dot for multiplication.

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1715 – Netherlands

‘The kelvin scale is more suitable for scientific purposes and the celsius scale is neater, based on decimals. The advantage of using the fahrenheit scale is that it is designed with everyday use in mind, rarely needing negative degrees’

Even as late as the start of the eighteenth century, scientists had no reliable means of accurately measuring temperature and a uniform scale by which to describe the limited measurements they could make.

Fahrenheit thermometer


GALILEO had used the knowledge that air expands when heated and contracts when cooled to build a primitive instrument. Using a cylindrical tube placed in water, he noted that when the air in the device was hotter, it pushed the level of the water downwards, just as it rose when the air-cooled. He realised that readings from the device were unreliable because the volume and therefore the behaviour of the air also fluctuated according to atmospheric pressure. Gradually scientists began using more stable substances to improve the accuracy of the reading, with alcohol being introduced as a possible substitute late in the seventeenth century.

Fahrenheit knew that the boiling points of different liquids varied according to fluctuations in atmospheric pressure; the lower the pressure, the lower the boiling point. A producer of meteorological instruments, he first achieved progress in 1709 with an improved alcohol thermometer. Building on the work of GUILLAUME AMONTONS (1663-1705) who investigated the properties of mercury, Fahrenheit took the measurement of temperature into another domain. He produced his first mercury thermometer, particularly useful in its application over a wide range of temperatures, in 1714.

In 1715 he complemented his breakthroughs in instrument making with the development of the fahrenheit temperature scale. Taking 0degrees to be the lowest temperature he could produce (from a blend of ice and salt), he used the freezing point of water and the temperature of the human body as his other key markers in its formulation.

In his initial calculations, he placed water’s freezing point at 30degrees F and the body’s temperature at 90degrees F. Later revisions changed this to 32degrees for the freezing point of water and 96degrees for the body temperature of humans. The boiling point of water worked out to be 212degrees F, giving a hundred and eighty incremental steps between freezing and boiling.

picture of the head and face of DANIEL FAHRENHEIT ©


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1745 – Holland/Germany

‘Electricity produced by electrostatic machines can be stored in a jar’

The Leyden Jar

diagram of the use of the 'LEYDEN JAR'

In modern terms the Leyden jar is a capacitor or condenser.
In 1734 Stephen Gray (c.1666-1736), an English experimenter, discovered that electric charge could be conducted over distance. He also classified various substances into conductors and insulators of electricity. He suggested that metals were the best conductors and thus introduced the use of electric wire.

In 1734 Musschenbroek, a professor from Leyden in Holland discovered that electricity could be stored in a jar of water.
During the same year, von Kleist, a German scientist also discovered the same principle independently.
In later versions of what became known as the Leyden jar, water was replaced by copper foil inside and outside the jar.
The Leyden jar became a novelty and in village faires magicians used ‘electricity in a bottle’ to amaze and entertain villagers.

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