Transmutation

Kerr Grant

Abstract


The idea of converting one substance into another appears to be a very ancient one. Sir Edward Thorpe in his '' History of Chemistry '' propounds the view that it may have originated in the speculations of Greek philosophers on the mutual convertibility of what they believed to be the four primal elements, viz., fire, air, water and earth. Later, in the Middle Ages, the problem of transmutation narrowed down to that of converting the so-called baser metals, such as lead, tin, or copper, into the nobler, such as silver or gold; and the quest for an agent variously named the "philosopher's stone", the "grand magisterium ", the "tincture" or the "quintessence", which would effect this transformation by some magical power, inspired the work of the medireval alchemists. The belief in the possibility of such transmutation was, no doubt, sustained by numerous instances of genuine chemical transformations, many of which were to all appearances of a far more fundamental character than the conversion of one metal into another. Like many other magical agencies of a similarly mysterious nature, belief in the existence of which is far from extinct in our own day, the power of the philosopher's stone was not confined to a single purpose. It preserved health and prolonged life ; it increased wisdom and virtue in him who possessed it ; it was a universal solvent, and served not merely to transmute metals, but. to produce precious gems.

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