Alchemy was practiced chiefly in the Middle
Ages and is believed to have sprung from the science of metallurgy.
Records have been found of man’s attempts in alchemy. The history of
alchemy dates back to the Hellenistic period, when it was practiced in ancient Egypt. The Greeks have had a keen interest
in the subject and a lengthy historical manuscript on the subject
substantiates this. Chinese studies in this field have also been
recorded in the form of books. Indian and Islamic works, on the
other hand, have no records and the only evidence that there were
studies in alchemy is indicted by various allusions to the subject
made in other historical works.
The underlying principle of alchemy was
based on the principle of the Aristotle school of thought that all
things present in nature aim at perfection. And as far as metals are
concerned, gold was considered the perfect metal. It was believed
that the natural progress for metals of all kinds was to turn into
gold someday. Hence, it logically followed that all other ‘inferior’
metals could, with the help of some process, be converted to gold.
This would just hasten what was believed would otherwise have
Gradually however alchemy ceased to be a
science and was overly influenced by rituals and astrology. Simple
chemical processes were given a hue bordering on magic. The idea
that gold was somehow linked to longevity excited the imagination of
many and was the motivation for various chemical experiments down
the ages. Many such experiments resulted in various unintended but
useful results too. All these experiments undoubtedly laid the
foundation for modern day chemistry. The manipulation of the many
materials known to alchemists lead to the discovery of the mineral
acids like nitric acid, sulphuric acid and hydrochloric acid that we
take for granted today.
Misuse of the chemical experiments that
alchemists performed spread very fast. This misuse took the shape of
occult practices and witchcraft. These practices flourished due to
the visual appeal added by alchemy. While alchemists tried to assist
nature by experimenting on metals to become gold, occult practices
gave an impression of having control over supernatural processes.
Occultists used to give the impression of having control over
nature. Being associated with such practices alchemy ceased to be a
scientific pursuit. Roots of the science, as we know it today,
appeared in the early 17th Century. And once on the right
path man has never looked back.