Curator's Corner: Newton – Scientist or Magician?

Stewart Murray

By Stewart Murray
LBMA CEO (September 1999 - December 2013)

At first glance, it seems strange that, prior to accepting the post of Master of the Royal Mint in 1699, Isaac Newton should have expended a large part of his creative energy and intellectual capacity during a 30-year period of studying the work of past alchemical masters.

And this interest was more than theoretical. In his laboratory at Cambridge University, Newton spent many years attempting to replicate the methods that some of these adepts had used, as he firmly believed, to produce the legendary Philosopher’s Stone that could turn base metals into gold.

What comes as a further surprise is that these studies were undertaken in parallel with Newton’s work on optics, gravity and mathematics – which amply justified his subsequent reputation as the world’s greatest scientist until the arrival of Einstein 200 years later.

The Last of the Magicians

It was only in 1936 that the extent of Newton’s alchemical research began to be clarified. This was when John Maynard Keynes acquired for Kings College, Cambridge, a large part of Newton’s surviving alchemical and religious manuscripts at a memorable sale at Sotheby’s in London. Later, Keynes wrote that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians…”.

Nevertheless, LBMA’s Wonders of Gold digital exhibition continues to take the birth of Newton in 1643 as the start of the Modern Era.

But how rational was it, in the second half of the 17th century, for a natural philosopher (the words ‘scientist’ and ‘physicist’ were not coined until 1834) to study chrysopoeia – the transmutation of base metals into gold? Judging by the alchemical studies of England’s other famous scientist of the time, Newton’s slightly older contemporary, Robert Boyle, the answer must surely be “reasonably”.


Secrets of the Adepts

Boyle was much more open about his alchemical interests than was Newton and, in fact, this limited their interchanges on the subject since Newton considered that it would be disastrous for the secrets of the adepts to become known to the common man. This was why their documents had been written in a highly coded way, making use of symbols (and not only the traditional planetary ones which we use today for the ‘original’ metals) and decknamen (i.e. cover names used for deliberate concealment) for amalgamations and mineral preparations (which we don’t). Understanding these decknamen, such as the phrase ‘Diana’s Doves’ – used for various alloys – allows us to conjure up a fascinating picture of the work in Newton’s laboratory.

In that era, alchemy and ‘chymistry’ were still very much entwined. Indeed, alchemy had always included a wide range of material topics, including medicines, dyes and mineral processing, as well as more the mystical and religious aspects of psychology. But as the 18th century dawned, ‘chymistry’ was becoming chemistry and alchemy was increasingly seen (and with ever-increasing suspicion) as the study of the unobtainable transmutation into gold by charlatans or deluded enthusiasts.


Alchemical Texts

The first European alchemical text appeared in 1144. In the following centuries, more followed, often based on the work of Islamic scholars who had been studying in this area for the previous centuries. The chrysopoeia aspects of alchemy were often criticised by the church, most famously with the decree of 1317 by Pope John XXII, which stated that all such efforts were fraudulent and laid down the penalties for those attempting to pass off their counterfeits as true gold.

Later, various European monarchs expressed concerns about the dangers of alchemists achieving success with transmutation, perhaps most famously by Henry IV of England, who in 1404 banned the “craft of multiplication of gold and silver”. But one of his successors, Elizabeth I, actually installed an alchemist in the Tower of London in order to carry out his chrysopoeia work for her (and then imprisoned him there when he failed to perform his claimed miracles).

The Alchemist

Given the secrecy with which alchemists practised their craft, it is not surprising that artists depicted their laboratories as dark and mysterious places. One of the most stunning of these is by Joseph Wright of Derby, whose painting of an alchemist discovering phosphorus can be found in the Wonders of Gold exhibition. But a very different one, shown here, is not yet included.

In contrast to the renowned collection of Bruegel’s giant paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, this copper-plate engraving is tiny – barely larger than an A4 sheet – and is a triumph of the engraver’s skill as much as of Bruegel’s art.

The Alchemist. Designed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1558; engraved by Philips Galle Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

In this amusing satirical picture, Bruegel gives us a chaotic depiction of the alchemist (at his workbench on the left) surrounded by his wife (with an empty purse) and family, as well as the tools of his trade and the materials from which he hopes to develop the Philosopher’s Stone. On the right, a student reads out instructions from one of the ancient tomes on his desk, no doubt written by previous adepts.

The tableau at the top right suggests a possible future, when the alchemist and his wife are forced to hand over their children to the care of the church, implying that no good will come of his efforts. It appears that Bruegel, in common with many educated people in the Middle Ages, was sceptical about the prospects of alchemists being able to transmute base metals into gold. Interestingly, the artist’s son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, produced a painted version of the same image after his father’s death.

But let us return to the question of the rationality of attempting transmutation. When John Dalton described his atomic theory of matter in 1803, one might have thought that this was the end of the story: elements consisted of unique atoms which could not be changed into other atoms by chemical processes. But another British chemist, William Prout, suggested in 1815 that all elements could be made from hydrogen. And as it turned out, he was partially correct and his ideas were supported as late as 1920 by Lord Rutherford.

Of course, we now know that transmutation is commonplace: on earth, in nuclear reactor piles, where uranium is split by bombardment with neutrons; in the sun, where hydrogen atoms combine to form helium (the fuel of its energy production and the basis of the further evolution of various lighter elements in the process, known as nucleosynthesis); and finally – and more rarely – in the giant supernovae which provide sufficient energy to force the creation of the heavier elements, including gold. So finally, true chrysopoeia. If only Newton had known!

A Note of Thanks from the Curator:

Two very different works have helped immensely in the preparation of this brief article. Firstly, the tremendous scholarship in the book Newton the Alchemist by William R Newman. And secondly, the compendious collection of all things alchemy on:

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Stewart Murray

By Stewart Murray
LBMA CEO (September 1999 - December 2013)