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Archive for July, 2009

Norton's Ordinall of Alchemy

Norton's Ordinall of Alchemy

    One of the points I hope to make as I build podcast episodes for The Elements Unearthed project is to show the threads that lead to modern chemistry as an empirical science. I have seen from my research here at Chemical Heritage Foundation that there are at least three major threads that all came together in the 17th and 18th Centuries to define what we call Chemistry today.

    The first thread was that of Theory or Logical Speculation – beginning with the Greek philosophers (such as Democritus and Aristotle) and continuing with attempts through the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods to reconcile atomic theory with church dogma (such as the attempts of Pierre Gassendi) or to refine and build on elemental (Aristotelian) theory, such as the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. This thread wasn’t concerned with experimental proof – that would only come later – but instead valued logical consistency and careful reasoning. The culmination of this thread was the revised (modern) atomic and corpuscular theories of Daniel Sennert, Robert Boyle, and John Dalton.

Emblem VI in Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier

Emblem VI in Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier

    The second thread was that of Alchemy, which I have been pursuing these past three weeks by locating related books in the CHF archives and photographing interesting pages. The alchemists had several goals in mind – the transmutation of base metals into gold, the creation of immortality (or at lest the cure of diseases) through the Elixir of Life or Philosopher’s Stone, and the purification of the inner self (spriritual alchemy). Despite their tendency to become secretive and overly allegorical, their constant experiments toward these goals laid a basic foundation for modern chemistry through all the compounds and materials they created which were failures. Sometimes the symbolism can be a lot of fun, such as this page from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (Atlanta Fleeing). In a series of emblems representing different alchemical processes, Maier created a publishing masterpiece that includes symbolic drawings (the first eleven are even hand colored), epigrams (riddles), songs, and other brain teasers. Perhaps even his title is a pun; maybe Fugiens is a play on the word fugue (again my lack of Latin training could be steering me wrong). If so, it would place his work in the company of Bach and Escher. I photographed all the emblems and all the music, and I hope to try out the songs and see if they have any fugue-ish qualities. If so, it would be fun to record them and use them for background music for the podcast episodes. 

A page from Pyrotechnia by Birringuccio

A page from Pyrotechnia by Biringucci

    The final thread, which is perhaps under appreciated, is that of the craftsman. These were the metalworkers, glass makers, stonecutters, painters, masons, engravers, sculptures, dyers, miners, printers, book binders, potters, jewelers, and other people who made practical materials and works of art. They developed high levels of technical skill during the Middle Ages (one of the reasons we don’t call them the Dark Ages anymore). Their skills were rarely written down, and even then usually as a set of lab notes of basic recipes without much explanation. Some of these lab notes have come down to us, recopied and much garbled, such as the Leydon Papyrus X, the writings of Pseudo-Democritus (Bolos of Mendes), the Natural History of Pliny, the Mappae Clavicula, and a very few others. I have been looking over a modern translation of the Treatise of Theophilus, who has been identified as one Roger of Helmarshausen, a talented metalworker who lived around 1100. Some of his works, such a portable alters and elaborate book covers, still exist in museums. His book is much more than the standard lab recipes; he gives detailed instructions and his chapter on metalwork is especially vivid and shows the first-person perspective of someone who did metalwork every day. His work was very influential in later technical books, such as the Pyrotechnia of Biringucci (1540) shown here or Antonio Neri’s Art of Glass or Agricola’s De Re Metallica. In this page, Biringucci shows how to hang bells that have been cast. Theophilus discussed how to cast and hang bells as well, showing this to be an ancient and highly technical skill.

The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle

The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle

    This past week I have begun to tie these threads together into the beginnings of modern chemistry. Although Antoine Lavoisier is credited with finally turning chemistry into a quantitative science, it was Robert Boyle who first proposed that chemistry should be based on experimentation and observation rather than logic and speculation. If there was one moment when Aristotle was finally cast into the fire, it was 1661 when Boyle first published The Sceptical Chymist. You see here a photo of the title page of a first edition of that book, which is extremely rare (less than 35 copies remain). We held an open house at CHF this Wednesday for invited guests (mostly chemistry experts and historians) and the archivists brought this book out and I managed to get a few photos of it. In addition, they had the first full printed version of Mendeleyev’s periodic table, and the notebook of Richard Smalley from 1985 where he first drew the structure of buckminsterfullerine (the famous bucky ball) that won him a Noble Prize. All very cool stuff for us chemistry geeks.

First fold-out periodic table

First fold-out periodic table

Richard Smalley's drawing of a Bucky Ball

Richard Smalley's drawing of a Bucky Ball

    Finally, more on the order of a teaser than for any other reason, here is another Earth animation. The texture this time is a NASA photographic montage of the Earth taken in May, 2007 (notice the recent snow in Europe) with ocean bathymetric data added. This is the most detailed Earth texture I have tried yet. I haven’t created any new animations this week because I’ve been having so much fun with the rare books, but the progress toward final editing of the student episodes is continuing; my plan remains to have serveral episodes ready to upload by August 31, with more shortly thereafter. I’ll have more teasers in the weeks to come. August will be a productive month for this project as I am planning to duplicate some of the CHF photo collection; interview several experts on matter theories, the history of chemistry, and the periodic table; and to visit several mine sites including a zinc mine in New Jersey, a coal mine in Scranton, and the mineral exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. All of this will be shown in future posts. Until then . . . . TTFN.

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Zosimos, Theosebeia, and a Distillation Furnace

Zosimos, Theosebeia, and a Distillation Furnace

    For the last two weeks I have continued my research into the alchemists of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, including such shadowy figures as Hermes Trimegistos (the mythic father of alchemy who, according to some medieval writers was a grandson of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, to others was a contemporary of Moses or Abraham) and Zosimos of Panopolis, the first verifiable real person whose alchemical writings have survived. Zosimos lived in Egypt, probably Alexandria, during the late 3rd and early 4th Centuries A.D. His teachings were written in Coptic Greek and later translated into Arabic. One book he wrote was the Mushaf as-Suwar, or Book of Pictures. The Chemical Heritage Foundation has a book edited by Theodor Abt with a facsimile copy of this manuscript, which was discovered in Istanbul and apparently dates from pre-Islamic times. This is seen from the fact that the book contains over forty color illustrations depicting Zosimos, his student Theosebeia, and various gods, demons, and angels. Depicting the human form is forbidden in the Quran, so these drawings predate Islam. In the Mushaf as-Suwar, Zosimos used allegorical language and the symbolism of gnostic Christianity to describe a series of dreams in which the processes of grinding and roasting and distillation where used to purify substances, but which also symbolized the inner transmutation of the soul; the purification of the alchemist himself. In the image above, Zosimos and Theosebeia with the sun and moon with faces over their heads (representing their eternal, perfected souls) are standing by a furnace with a distillation alembic on top. The size of the furnace (the same size as the figures) indicates an inner or spiritual transformation. Interestingly enough, these same symbols – sun god and moon queen standing by a distillation vessel – are quite common in alchemical allegorical symbology.

A recipe for red glass using gold powder

A recipe for red glass using gold powder

    In addition to this “deep alchemy” research, I’ve begun to photo books that document technologies and processes used in the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods. One such book is Antonio Neri’s Art of Glass, written in Florence around 1612. Neri was a master glassmaker and his book details recipes and techniques for glass blowing, enamels, paints, etc. One page of the English translation by Merritt shows Neri’s recipe for red glass using gold powder that has been “calcined” using Aqua Regis and roasting. The diagrams in the book show the use of tools very similar to those used today; this is one art form that has not changed all that much. A modern glass blower could go back in time 400 years and still be perfectly qualified to practice the art; the only real difference is that back then, the glass factories would make their own colored frit (hence Neri’s recipes) instead of buying the frit ready-made.

A windlass for raising ore

A windlass for raising ore

    Another fascinating book of technology that I’ve started to photograph is De Re Metallica by Georg Agricola, first published in 1556. It details mining practices in Germany at that time, and Agricola goes into elaborate detail on the types of mineral deposits and veins found, how to survey them, what tools to use to dig the ore out, how to raise and lower the ore buckets (as in the windlass diagram shown here), and even several techniques to pump water out of the mine shafts. Here he has a diagram of a multi-stage sump pump that is powered by an overshot waterwheel above the mine. Interestingly enough, Pliny the Elder talks about a similar technique that used human-powered treadmills to raise sump water in stages inside the Rio Tinto gold mines in Spain during Roman times.

Multi-stage water pump

Multi-stage water pump

    Agricola’s book required over 270 woodcut illustrations which held up its printing for years. It was a masterwork, a book of beautiful design and quality, as you can see. I feel very priveleged to even look at it, let alone photograph it.  Unfortunately, Agricola died in 1555, a year before it was finally printed. I guess that’s a lesson to scholars to not be too perfectionistic in our work!

    Finally, I continue to explore the area surrounding Philadelphia with my family. We traveled to Ocean City, New Jersey last Saturday and I took some good photos and video of the ocean, which will surely come in handy. I’m already thinking of places to use it. Here’s a sample photograph:

Beach at Ocean City, New Jersey

Beach at Ocean City, New Jersey

It reminds me of Isaac Newton’s saying, that he considered himself merely a boy playing on the beach looking at interesting shells and pebbles, while all around him the ocean of knowledge lay unexplored.

    I have also continued working on illustrations and animations for forthcoming podcast episodes. Here is a video clip of an animation of the Earth rotating. It was created in Daz Bryce 6 using a brass sphere surround by a gold sphere, the texture of which contains a world ocean mask (which I found at a NASA website) to cut out the ocean areas. I’ve been using this to create animations which zoom in to Greece, Egypt, Rome, etc. for various parts of the Greek atomic theory episode that will be posted at the end of August.

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Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder

Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder

    This last week at Chemical Heritage Foundation I have begun to photograph some of the ancient books and manuscripts that are housed here. After researching CHF’s online catalog, I identified several books to start with including Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, Basil Valentine’s Twelve Keys, and others. The research librarians of the Othmer Library then located the books in the rare book storage and brought them up to the Jacobs Reading Room where I have been photographing selected pages. 

    The fun has come through the realization that I am handling books that are 400 years old or more. I’ve handled some old books before where the paper has become so brittle that you can’t turn a page without tearing the paper; I was very nervous about that happening here, but found that these older books actually hold up better than many of the books printed in the 20th Century. 400 years ago, if you could afford a book, you could afford to do it right, with high-quality paper and leather binding. The paper of these books has an amazing feel (this coming from someone who’s dabbled in drawing and painting) and can be handled if proper precautions are taken, such as resting the books on a special pillow to avoid stressing their spines and making sure my hands are clean and oil-free.

Pages on Love Potions from Trinum Magicum

Pages on Love Potions from Trinum Magicum

    Once I got over my nervousness at handling the books, I began trying to decipher the Latin and German. I’m not very good at either language, but I did run across some interesting things. In a compilation book titled Trinum Magicum, I found a section labeled “De Unguento Armario” which I believe means “Love Potion” (those Latin scholars out there please correct me!). The author (unknown) didn’t seem to be in favor of love potions, and listed some of the symptoms one could expect from their use, such as “Inanis vita” or an empty or useless life. On the right page he mentions a “contra toxicum” or antidote. It occured to me that this was a perfect thing to discover given that the sixth Harry Potter movie, The Half-Blood Prince, is coming out this week and love potions figure prominently in the plot. I half expected Romilda Vane to be hiding behind one of the columns at CHF. Certainly these books bear more than a passing resemblance to those in the library at Hogwarts.  One of the other books I’ve photographed even included a summary of the works of Nicholas Flamel . . . !

The Sixth Key, from Basil Valentine, 1626

The Sixth Key, Basil Valentine, 1626

    Two of the other interesting books I’ve photographed are both editions of Basil Valentine’s Twelve Keys (Zwolfe Schlussel) in German. In this work, Valentine, a Benedictine monk, describes the twelve steps for making the Philosopher’s Stone (shades of HP again) and describes these steps through twelve allegorical drawings that are rich in symbols meant to confuse the uninitiated. Although much of the work was probably written at least a hundred years after Valentine’s death, it was still fascinating to realize how seriously all of this was taken back then. The first edition was a 1626 version, with the illustrations printed from woodcuts. The second was a 1717 edition, much expanded, with the illustrations printed from engravings and much more detailed. It has been fun to compare the two.

1717 edition of Basil Valentine's The Twelve Keys

1717 edition of Basil Valentine's The Twelve Keys

    Meanwhile, my wife ‘Becca, my two youngest children, and I ventured out to Delaware to the Du Pont gunpowder mill on the Brandywine River near Wilmington. From 1802 through 1921, the mill used water power from the Brandywine to produce the best black powder in the United States. Eleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours was an apprentice to Antoine Lavoisier, the famous chemist who was in charge of French gunpowder manufacturing. When du Pont’s father found that American gunpowder was of inferior quality, his son was sent to build a gunpowder factory using the techniques he had learned from Lavoisier. By refining the raw materials further to increase their purity, adding automation to the compositing process (where the saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal were ground up and mixed through water power and rolling mills), and by improving the consistency of size and finishing of the powder grains, the Du Pont company became the leader in gunpowder manufacturing. They expanded into polymer manufacturing and other materials and are a leader today in the chemical manufacturing industry.

Water turbine at Du Pont gunpowder mill

Water turbine at Du Pont gunpowder mill

    To run the mills, a diversionary dam was built on the Brandywine to push water into a mill race that had less fall that the river. Along the mill race, headgates allowed the water to be diverted onto overshot waterwheels and later onto water turbines (shown here) to run two rolling mills each. Huge metal wheels rolled around in a trough, where the correct mixture of ingredients had been placed, until they were ground to a fine powder and thoroughly mixed. The powder was then compressed into cakes to increase its density (and power), then broken up into same-sized grains and glazed, then packaged and stored in a magazine far from the processing plant. Each of the mills was built with three strong stone walls, a flimsy roof, and an open fourth wall facing the river. In case of an explosion (which happend fairly often) the force of the explosion would go out over the river.

Gunpowder roller mill

Gunpowder roller mill

    All of this water-powered machinery required considerable maintenance, and there was a full machine shop with all the needed equipment also water powered through a system of shafts and belts. Gear cogs and other parts could be cut or repaired in this shop. One particularly interesting device was a transmission system for a variable drill; the two cones seen here are almost but not quite touching. The belt in between creates a point of contact and can be moved left or right to speed up or slow down the drill press, which runs off the belt at far right. I’ve seen similar belt-driven milling equipment at the Tintic Mining Museum in Eureka, Utah but it is all sitting outside rusting. Here at Du Pont’s Hagley Museum it was all in working order.

Transmission system for variable speed drill

Transmission system for variable speed drill

    Finally, here is a sample video of the Synthetic Diamond Manufacturing project, as promised. In this clip, Francis Leany, the Product Development Manager for Novatek, tells the story of how H. Tracy Hall invented the belt apparatus that successfully created the first artificial diamonds in Dec., 1954. I hope you enjoy it!

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Stained glass artwork at National LIberty Museum

Stained glass artwork at National LIberty Museum

 

    Each day as I travel to Chemical Heritage Foundation, I walk through the heart of old Philadelphia, where history is found in layers. This city is over 325 years old, whereas the towns in Utah where I come from can barely claim 150 years. Just about every building either is historic in its own right or is built over an historic spot. CHF is located at 315 Chestnut Street, which is diagonal to Carpenter’s Hall (where the First Continental Congress met in 1774). Just a couple of weeks ago I realized that the alley next to our building leads to Franklin Court, which is where Benjamin Franklin’s house was located as well as his printing office. There is a museum that is almost literally underneath our museum at CHF (talk about layered history!) that includes replicas or originals of Franklin’s many inventions and scientific instruments among other exhibits. 

The Flame of Liberty by Dale Chihuly

The Flame of Liberty by Dale Chihuly

 

 

    I was hoping to have some of these sorts of synergies occur as part of my fellowship, but sometimes opportunities come up that are completely unexpected. One such happens to be next door to Franklin Court – only about ten feet away from our building. It’s called the National Liberty Museum, and it has an excellent display of the struggle for liberty and some of the heroes that have helped to achieve it. I didn’t realize this until I finally walked in last week, but it also is a museum of modern glass art. Each historical display is paired with blown and stained glass artwork that compliments and emphasizes its theme, ranging from highly realistic to abstract. Given how much work we’ve done this spring on stained and blown glass, I was pleasantly surprised to find this. I was amazed at the beauty of the glass work and the power of the displays. They have a piece called the Flame of Liberty by Dale Chihuly, as well as several others by him. He is one of the great current masters of blown glass. They also have some beautiful stained and sculpted glass pieces.

 

Blown glass platters by Dale Chihuly

Blown glass platters by Dale Chihuly

 

    I’m also finding there are opportunities in the vicinity of Philadelphia that could become possible episodes. There is a zinc mine in northern New Jersey that gives tours; a coal mine up in the Poconos; the Drake oil well (the first one) in Titusville, in the extreme northwest corner of Pennsylvania (I would have to stop there on my way back to Utah); and other possibilities. If I take advantage of all of these, then I will have enough materials to last for months.

    Speaking of episodes, here is a video clip, as promised, that was presented at my Brown Bag Lunch two weeks ago. I’ve added a few images and finished out some animations since then. It is meant to show two samples of the episodes on the origins of atomic and elemental theories in ancient Greece. I am showing this here to get some feedback from anyone on how well they like (or don’t like) the animations and illustrations used, as they are representative of what you’ll see in all the episodes. Please feel free to comment on these video samples; the more specific, the better. 

    Meanwhile my research into how atomic theory changed and developed in the Middle Ages is continuing, and I will have some things to say about that next time.

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