Practical Laboratory alchemy
I am continually asked by people who have recently discovered alchemy to give them some advice on how to get started. Regrettably, I do not really have the spare time to give people more than a cursory account of how they should proceed, so I have decided to place some information onto some web pages.
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Some people are drawn to alchemy hoping they might find the elusive philosophers' stone by performing alchemical experiments. There are, in fact, a number of people actually doing alchemical experiments, however, these are for the most part based on the work of Frater Albertus (Albert Riedel) in the USA in the 1970s and 80s. Albertus devised a system loosely based on 16th century Spagyry, but reworked for the modern era and using modern laboratory glassware and heating devices. The initial aim of these experiments was to produce plant stones, through a simple form of safe 'kitchen' chemistry. These are supposed to have medicinal properties. They are certainly aromatic. He established an extensive study course on his alchemy at his centre in Salt Lake City. Though Albertus died in 1984 various groups continued this way of working up to the present day, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people have at some time tried this process.
Albertus and the later alchemical groups following his lead also developed an alchemy working with minerals. Among these experiments were some based on antimony and others on working with metallic acetates. Again the aim is primarily to produce medicines.
These alchemical experiments of the Frater Albertus school are really simple and repeatable, being simple chemistry. They are instructive and give the experimenter some experience of simple distillations, filtering, solvent extraction and so on, however, they have little connection with the actual alchemical work performed by historical alchemists. Even a cursory glance at the working notebook of an alchemist (there are many preserved in libraries) reveals no simple 'Albertus style' processes. Instead most alchemical experiments seem to involve metallic compounds heated to very high temperatures in furnaces, often with much use of metallic mercury, or a mercury compound. Such work is very dangerous, as these compounds produce toxic fumes. Indeed, it would be folly to attempt such experiments in a domestic setting. To undertake such work one needs protective clothing and a purpose built fume extractor.
For this reason, almost no one is currently trying to replicate the actual alchemy practised in historical alchemy. The 'Albertus style' alchemical work, is more akin to the craftwork of the distillers, or spagyric apothecaries of the 16th and 17th centuries. It may still be interesting to undertake such experiments, but these are not the alchemy described in real alchemists' notebooks. One popular American alchemical group, even provides, by mail order, a kit of alchemical apparatus so its members can perform 'alchemy'. They even get a certificate awading them the title of Master Alchemist ! If only it were so easy.
There are few genuine alchemical experimenters. They usually have spent tens of thousands of pounds on creating a purpose built laboratory. Such people usually pursue their tasks alone, and almost never seek publicity, or even welcome contacts from others.
In recent years, a number of people have used the internet to play games with gullible people's preconceptions, by pretending to be alchemists with extensive laboratories and even a staff of workers. They claim they are close to achieving the alchemical tincture, and show photos of processes in flasks, or crucibles with red powder. Some even claim to be able to make gold. These people feed their egos on basking in the ill founded admiration they get from credulous followers.
So if you want to pursue practical alchemy today, you can easily (and relatively inexpensively) repeat the simple 'Albertus style' kitchen chemistry, which is quite safe if one is careful, but one will find it extremely difficult to embark on repeating the actual experiments undertaken in 16th and 17th century alchemical laboratories.