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De Re Metallica
The Roman poet Lucretius wrote his longest work, 'On the Nature of Things', about the atomist world-view. He hoped to free his readers from superstitious fear of the gods by explaining the universe in terms of natural processes. John Evelyn published this translation and commentary on the first section.
Georgius Agricola, De Re Metallica (1657)
Agricola (1494-1555) was a German physician, but his most famous works concern mineralogy and mining. He was the first European to publish a full description of the art of metallurgy, from mining techniques to smelting and casting metals. His work is beautifully illustrated throughout, and shows methods and equipment also used by chemists and alchemists in their experiments.
These illustrations show two different designs for small furnaces suitable for a gentleman's private laboratory.
Agricola's work was an important influence on Glauber (1604-1670), a German chemist, physician and alchemist. Glauber invented an improved furnace that made it possible to heat substances to a high temperature under a variety of conditions. His furnaces became famous throughout Europe, and his laboratory in Amsterdam was fitted with vessels and instruments of his own design. He wrote an unusually clear description of his equipment and techniques, allowing others to follow his instructions and prepare the chemical substances he had discovered. He in turn influenced important early scientists such as Robert Boyle and Hermann Boerhaave.
This image shows Glauber's equipment put to medical use as a 'sweating tub', or early sauna.
Flamel was a Parisian bookseller who lived in the 14th century. His 'hieroglyphicall figures' supposedly represent designs Flamel made for a church architectural feature. They were published in 1612 with an introduction that described Flamel's search for the Philosopher's Stone. Flamel became a famous name among European alchemists, but may have been the creation of a 17th century publisher eager to feed the public's appetite for alchemical books.
Boyle (1627-1691) and Newton (1642-1727) were both very interested in alchemy and took notes from alchemical texts. Boyle was an early experimental chemist and believed that it may be possible to transmute other metals into gold. He was keen to meet anyone who claimed to have seen this process performed, and corresponded with alchemists throughout Europe. Newton was also fascinated by the idea that matter could be transformed. He used his notebooks to attempt explanations of alchemical texts he had read. Printed texts were often written in deliberately obscure language, to keep secrets among a small group of adepts.
Panel discussion 25 May
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