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.





1774 – England

portrait of JOSEPH PRIESTLY (1733-1804) ©


‘Priestly stumbled upon oxygen in 1774 while heating mercury oxide and discovered that it greatly enhanced the burning of a candle’s flame’

Priestly did not realise the true impact of his findings and it was left to ANTOINE LAVOISIER whom he told of his findings in 1775 to establish the central place oxygen has in the fields of chemistry and biology.

Priestly named the gas ‘dephlogisticated air’, in keeping with the accepted theory that all flammable substances contained the elusive substance ‘phlogiston‘ which was central to the combustion process and was released (and lost) during it.

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BENJAMIN THOMPSON (1753-1814) known as Count Rumford

1798 – England

‘Mechanical work can be converted into heat. Heat is the energy of motion of particles’

Heat is a form of energy associated with the random motion of atoms or molecules. Temperature is a measure of the hotness of an object.

In the eighteenth century, scientists imagined heat as a flow of a fluid substance called CALORIC. Each object contained a certain amount of caloric. If caloric flowed out, the object’s temperature decreased; if more caloric flowed into the object, its temperature increased.

Like PHLOGISTON, caloric was a weightless fluid, a quality that could be transmitted from one substance to another, so that the first warmed the second up. What is being transmitted is heat energy.

Working for the Elector of Bavaria, Rumford investigated the heat generated during the reaming out of the metal core when the bore of a cannon is formed. According to the caloric theory, the heat was released from the shards of metal during boring; Rumford noticed that if the tools were blunt and removed little or no metal, more heat was generated, rather than less.

Rumford postulated that the heat source had to be the work done in drilling the hole. Heat was not an indestructible caloric fluid, as LAVOISIER had argued, but something that could come and go. Mechanical energy could produce heat and heat could lead to mechanical energy.

One analogy he drew was to a bell; heat was like sound, with cold being similar to low notes and hot, to high ones. Temperature was therefore just the frequency of the bell. A hot object would emit ‘calorific rays’, whilst a cold one would emit ‘frigorific rays’ – an idea raised in Plutarch’s De Primo Frigido. Cold was an entity in itself, not simply the absence of heat.

Rumford thought there was no separate caloric fluid and that the heat content of an object was associated with motion or internal vibrations – motion which in the case of the cannon was bolstered by the friction of the tools. He had recognized the relationship between heat energy and the physicists’ concept of ‘work’ – the transfer of energy from a system into the surroundings, caused by the work done, results in a difference in temperature.
This transfer of energy measured as a temperature difference is called ‘heat’.

Half a century was to pass before in 1849, JAMES JOULE established the ‘mechanical equivalent of heat’ and JAMES CLERK MAXWELL launched the kinetic theory. According to Maxwell, the heat content of a body is equivalent to the sum of the individual energies of motion (kinetic energies) of its constituent atoms and molecules.

US born Rumford founded the Royal Institution in London and invented the calorimeter, a device measuring heat.

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