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alchemy & chemistry

'Alchemy' and 'Chemistry' in the seventeenth century referred to the same discipline, namely the study of matter by analysis, synthesis and transmutation. In fact, the common term describing the practical art of manipulating matter was 'Chymistry'. Thus Robert Boyle's most famous book was called the Sceptical Chymist (1661). It was not until the third decade of the eighteenth century that writers began to reserve the term 'alchemy' for attempts to transmute base metals into gold. And it was not until the writings of the occultists in the nineteenth century and Carl Jung in the twentieth century that alchemy was defined in essentially spiritual or psychic terms.

This section traces developments in 'chymistry' and then chemistry and alchemy from the revisionist and medically-oriented writings of Paracelsus and van Helmont through to the classic works of Lavoisier and Priestley who discovered oxygen and more than any others laid the foundations for modern chemistry. The progression in laboratory techniques, quantitative analysis and theoretical development is striking. For example, in the mid-seventeenth century it was not clear whether there were elements or just a universal matter underlying all things and there was no conception of the gaseous state. By the time of Lavoisier we have a basic table of 'elements' and the tripartite division between solid, liquid and gas.

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