Miscellany — April 2010

Esoteric science . . .

The seventeenth century was a fertile time for scientific experimentation and speculation of every kind, and the line between the "new" science and the "old" was by no means drawn as firmly as it is today. Two of the most famous British scientists of the century, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, were also keen alchemists; and in 1689 Boyle played a key role in repealing Henry IV's 1403 statute outlawing alchemy in England.

Boyle's correspondents include a number of other alchemists: Edmund Dickinson, Sir Kenelm Digby and the mysterious Johann Brün, George Starkey and John Winthrop — the last two, significantly, were born and largely active in North America. There is a flow back and forth of alchemical news, "recipes" and even substances. All this gives glimpses of a scientific world that is certainly quite unlike our own: the philosophers' stone; powder of projection, for turning base metals into gold; the alkahest, a universal solvent; celestial magnets, to catch a "universal spirit" from sunbeams; and innumerable technical terms — almost all of them in Latin, which alchemists used in order both to underline their learning and to keep their powerful and dangerous secrets out of the reach of the "vulgar". But even translated, terms such as "spirit of hartshorn", "essence of vitriol" and "arcanum of tartar" are still safely unintelligible to most of us.

In order to make their work even more opaque to the outsider, the alchemists would also use symbols for many substances: for gold, for silver, for iron, for lead, for sal ammoniac and so on. These symbols do exist in some fonts, and we were able to display them easily enough (once we had found them!), but other, even more obscure symbols — those for sulphur, antimony and other substances such as "spirit of wine" and "caput mortuum" — are nowhere to be found. At present they are given in square brackets, until we can provide the appropriate image. In all cases, we have tagged these alchemical symbols so that the user can find out what they stand for by simply hovering over them.

Other, less esoteric symbols appearing in the same documents include measurements: for scruple, Ʒ for drachm (=3 scruples), for ounce (=8 drachms). These were more widely used, particularly in medicine, so they were commonly known as apothecaries' weights.

One of the more entertaining (and practical) recipes in the first volume of Boyle's correspondence, added as an afterthought to a letter to Boyle from Henry Oldenburg, is one for invisible ink — with a difference:

Prenez 1 ou 2 ounces de vinaigre distillé, et ½ ounc. de Lithargiron en pierre, et ayant pulverisé cestuy-cy, mettez-le dans le vinaigre, et avec cela escrivez en lettres blanches tout ce que vous voudrez enseigner secretement à vostre amy. Apres, bruslez un morceau de Liege (corke) jusques à ce qu'il soit tout charbonné et ne brusle plus: alors esteignez le avec un peu d'eau de vie. Mettez ce charbon en poudre, et y ayant mis un peu d'eau de gumme, faitez en de l'ancre, avec lequel vous escrirez tout une autre chose sur les predites lettres blanches. En fin, prenez 1 ounc. d'orpiment, et l'ayant aussi pulverisé, meslez le avec 2 ounc. de la chaux vive, qui soit bonne et vigoreuse, et apres mettez les ensemble dans une phiole de verre ou d'estain, renant une chopine (an English pinte) et l'ayant remplie de l'eau commune, agitez le par ¼ d'heure: Et cest'eau servira à merveille pour effacer les lettres escrites de l'ancre, et pour faire apparoistre à vostre amy tout ce que vous aurez escrit en lettres blanches.

Take 1 or 2 ounces of distilled vinegar and ½ ounce of litharge in the form of stone; having pulverized this, put it in the vinegar and with this mixture write in white letters whatever you wish to send secretly to your friend. Afterwards, burn a piece of cork until it is all carbonised and burns no more; then extinguish it with a little brandy. Powder this charcoal and after adding a little water with gum, make an ink with which to write something else on the formerly mentioned white letters. Finally, take 1 ounce of orpiment and, having pulverised it, mix with it 2 ounces of quicklime, good and strong, and then mix these together in a glass or pewter vial, holding a pint, and after filling it with ordinary water, shake it for a quarter of an hour. This water will be wonderfully effective in effacing the letters written in ink and in rendering visible to your friend everything which you have written in white letters.

— Peter Damian-Grint
Correspondence Editor, Electronic Enlightenment Project
© 2010 University of Oxford

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