History of Alchemy and Chemistry

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Code Completion Credits Range Language
15DALCH ZK 2 2+0 Czech
Vladimír Karpenko (guarantor)
Department of Nuclear Chemistry

This course provides the overview of crafts with chemical and/or metallurgical basis. Development of alchemy from ancient times in China, India, and Hellenistic world is discussed. The last part of course is dedicated to Alchemy in Arabic world and various aspects of alchemy in Latin Europe. The influence of alchemical approaches development onto crafts advancement is illustrated.


Knowledge of chemistry on the level of graduate from a secondary grammar school.

Syllabus of lectures:

1.Interpretation of historical sources. Some ancient crafts: salt production; paints on pottery; cinnabar, indigo, Tyrian purple, Egyptian blue; cosmetics. Wine and beer. Discovery of paper. Embalming in Egypt, history of the term neter. Sumerian terminology.

2.Myth as the oldest picture of nature, goddess Mother-Earth. Planetary gods.

3.Precious metals and analysis of their purity. Iron and steel metallurgy. Further ancient metals.

4.Ancient China. Taoism and Confucianism. Five elements, yin and yang. Magic square Lo shu, eight trigrams. Book I Ching. Overview of the history of Chinese alchemy. Ko Hung's encyclopedia. Protochemistry. Late Chinese esotericism. Discovery of black gunpowder.

5.Ancient and mediaeval India. Vedas, Upanishads. Problem of dating Indian sources. Basic ideas of Indian alchemy, attempt of classification of substances. Tantrism. Mercury as a crucial metal. Practice of Indian alchemy, recipes.

6.Hellenistic world. Greek natural philosophy, Aristotle, four elements. Ancient Egyptian crafts, papyri Leyden X and Stockholm. Pseudodemokritos. Gnosis and alchemy, ouroboros symbolism. Some Hellenistic alchemists: Mary the Jewess, Zosimos from Panopolis. Laboratory instruments. Classification of substances. Color symbolism. Planets and metals.

7.Arabic alchemy. An-Nadim's catalogue. Jabir and his school, sulfur-mercury theory. Numerical mysticism in Arabic alchemy and philosophy. Ar-Razi's system of substances. Emerald Table. Ibn Sina. Tracts of Brethren of Purity, origin of metals. Late Arabic authors.

8.Europe. Mediaeval crafts: Theophilus, Mappae clavicula. History of the discovery of alcohol. Origin of alchemy in Latin Europe, translators, compilers. Albertus Magnus. Peak of alchemy: Arnald from Villanova, Ramon Lull and Pseudolully. Pseudogeber, discoveries of mineral acids. Alchemy and church. Papal decree against alchemists.

9.European renaissance. General features, development of astronomy and medicine, M. Copernicus, A. Vesalius. Mining and metallurgy: G. Agricola, L. Ercker, V. Biringuccio. Flourish of alchemy in renaissance. Paracelsus, theory tria prima, iatrochemistry; homunculus, Jewish kabbalah. Mysticism: Agrippa from Nettesheim, numerical magic squares.

10.Alchemy in Bohemia. Johannes Ticinensis, Johann from Laz, Hynek from Poděbrad. Rudolfian era, Bavor the Younger Rodovský, E. Kelley, J. Dee and their works. M. Sendivogius, problem of discovery of oxygen. Mysticians of the 17th century: M. Maier, D. Stolcius; symbolism of renaissance alchemy.

11.R. Boyle and I. Newton as alchemists. Discovery of phosphorus. J. Becher and the roots of phlogiston theory. Summary of European alchemy. Chemical and/or metallurgical methods of alleged transmutation of metals. Reflection of chemical reactions in the systems of metals. History of the reaction between iron and cupric ions in solution and its influence on alchemy.

12.Transition between alchemy and chemistry. Pneumatic chemistry, van Helmont, A.-L. Lavoisier, life and work. Summary of the development of terminolgy and symbolism of alchemy and chemistry. First discoveries of elements.

Syllabus of tutorials:
Study Objective:

The course provides knowledge on development of alchemy and its transformation to exact natural science - chemistry.

Students gain competence to understand contemporary trends of chemistry development better.

Study materials:

Key literature:

1.Salzberg, H. W.: From Caveman to Chemist, Amer. Chem. Soc., Washington, D.C. 1991.

Recommended literature:

1.Sherwood Taylor, F.: The Alchemists, Paladin Press, Frogmore 1976.

2.Holmyard, E. J.: Alchemy, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1957, 1968.

3.Read, J.: Prelude to Chemistry, G. Bell, London 1961.

4.Leicester, H. M.: The Historical Background of Chemistry, J. Wiley, New York 1956.

Time-table for winter semester 2022/2023:
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Time-table for summer semester 2022/2023:
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The course is a part of the following study plans:
Data valid to 2023-01-30
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