Why did Alchemy last so long when it never did jack?

Word on the street is that alchemists of old really, REALLY wanted to turn common elements like lead into gold. Then they could party like an Emperor! But it never seemed to work, because of course, it is impossible. Even considering I have the unfair advantage of a 7th grade science class which discussed elements, nonetheless even back in the day I would have figured out that lead doesn’t turn into gold after enough trial and error.

Wikipedia says, *“In reality, although Alchemists contributed distillation to Western Europe, they did little for any known industry. Goldsmiths knew long before Alchemists appeared how to tell what was good gold or fake, and industrial technology grew by the work of the artisans themselves, rather than any Alchemical helpers.” *

So, since lead doesn’t turn into gold, why did it take 2500 years for these junior Merlins to figure it out?

Actually, turning lead into gold isn’t impossible. You can do it with a particle accelerator. You just can’t do it by pouring strange chemicals into test tubes on a workbench.

Plus, it wasn’t totally useless. The first steel foundries in the West used alchemists’ discoveries to turn iron into steel.

Same reason as astrologers are still around?

Many of the things learned by alchemists were the basis for chemistry. While trying to turn base metals into gold, they created other useful compounds – phosphorus, for example. (Phosphorus existed, of course, but it was in natural formations; alchemy allowed people to to make quantities of it using something that’s readily available.)

I also thought that in some instances, their non-gold sample was contaminated with gold. So they would eventually find gold and think it worked when in actuality they just extracted what was already there.

Why did Alchemy last so long when it never did jack?

For the same reason that people get remarried after they get divorced.

It’s the triumph of hope over experience.

:slight_smile: (but ha ha only serious)



Chuck’s right. Alchemists were chemists, although trial and error chemists who didn’t work by what we know of today as scientific principles. Metallurgy, medicine, chemistry, all were pioneered by alchemists, few of whom wasted their time by trying to turn lead into gold. Those few were often first-class con men and that type of person gets his name into the history books more readily than ordinary hard-working schmoes.

A good readable book on the subject is Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements, by Paul Strathern.

Strathern is no defender of alchemy. He derides it as a hoax and says that it lasted because admitting that it didn’t work would be to admit that all the greatness of history - which was then a major force - had to be denied, without anything to put in its place. That’s not how humans work. Today we may look back at history and marvel at their ignorance, but the notion that the past was a golden age that we’ve fallen from once guided all actions. We still see it in many nostalgic memories for a past that never was. Make that into a guiding principle and then ask why alchemy doesn’t work. The answer is obviously that we’re to blame, not the principles laid out by the geniuses written about in the books.

Nitpick: phosphorus is an element, not a compound.

No internet.

Also, there are an infinite number of things you can try. So if you are stubborn, and you don’t have the physics knowledge to tell you that it’s not possible, you might keep trying. The promise of women and power is persistent.

I don’t think it’s at all intuitive that you can’t turn lead into gold given what people knew about technology back then. If you could turn wood into ash or copper and tin into brass, why not lead into gold?

I’m always reminded of the fact that Isaac Newton spent more time working on alchemy than he did on calculus and physics put together. It simply was not clear to him that what he wanted to do was impossible.

Cold fusion and antigravity are two modern lead-into-gold things that are widely believed to be a waste of time for research and yet we can’t prove that they aren’t possible. Individuals are still working on them and the media still reports on it.

I’ve always wondered if Alchemists seriouslyl considered that even if they COULD turn lead into gold, it would greatly deflate the value of gold in general if every tom, dick, and joe could turn lead into gold in their kitchen laboratory.

I think the concept of merit and better ideas winning is a fairly modern one and probably ties in with the enlightenment. In the past, especially when alchemy ruled (ancient world to dark ages), there was no real meritocracy. Alchemists were people of a certain class or came from a certain education that made them impossible to question, especially from someone from a lower class. For instance, an alchemist might say “For better crops put mercury in the water, because mercury is magical.” A hard working serf might say “No, we need manure in there!” This scenario doesnt lead to the serf being heralded for his insights, but probably a horse-whipping or worse. You didnt question your betters back then even when you knew better.

The role of the alchemist was something of a religious role. They made decrees and people followed. Alchemy was also something of a protoscience. The scientific method as we know it didnt exist but some concepts did overlap. Alchemists did discover some things and were educated (think Newton), but the social structure was broken and their methodology was flawed. A modern equivalent would be a Haitian witch-doctor. They know a bit about treating wounds and working with herbs, but all of that is mixed in with a great deal of superstition and their ideas will never lead to anything close to modern medicine.

As far as being shocked that a lot of this stuff didnt work, well, who would be the one saying this? Depending on the culture, the only people who could really put alchemist and wise men in their place were those in a high class or royalty themselves. What interest did these people have in this kind of thing?

In the modern world with all our gifts of free speech and human rights, we still cant walk up to the pope/imam/prophet/cultleader and call him a fraud without a horde of people defending an obvious charlatan and perhaps resorting to violence. Society is a bit more complex than whats ethically wrong or right or what can be proved empirically and with reason, doubly so in the past.

The form of phosphorus discovered was in a compound.

I know of no good evidence for this. You need to back it up.

No to this as well. The process would be as secret as humanly possible. No alchemists thought it would be easy or quick. They spent years at it and even if they found the method they expected it to be difficult and time-consuming.

Alchemy probably continued for so long because it seems to me that alchemy would be fun. I mean, you get to wear a pointy hat and a long beard and work in a stone-walled laboratory filled with esoteric beakers and cauldrons and weird devices, like Merlin’s house in the Disney animated movie of Sword in the Stone. Not only that, but the chicks were probably all over you. And you could impress people by disappearing into a puff of smoke and shit like that. I mean, hell, what’s NOT to like about it? If it was still a viable career choice, I would do it without a moment’s hesitation.

Also one other thing is that, even though economics as a discipline was about as far advanced as chemistry at that point, I think they realized to some degree that gold was mostly valuable only because of it’s scarcity. This means that it would be imperative if you ever did successfully start making gold to keep it a secret! So unlike modern science where you get to stand on the shoulders of those who came before you, every single alchemist was more or less starting from scratch. Plus there were always rumors swirling around that someone earlier had succeeded and kept it quiet-- these rumors made a lot of alchemists think that what they were attempting was possible.

Why would they be any more all over medieval nerds than they are the modern equivalent?

Some alchemists had better things to do than mess with transmutation:

Which compound would this be?

Just like the recent transformation in the past 10-15 years of high-paid programming jobs, once the money rolls in, attitudes will change.