Sir Isaac Newton is most famous for the quantification of gravitational attraction, discovering that white light is actually a mixture of immutable spectral colours and the formulation of calculus. However it is less well documented that Newton spent 30 years engaged in the study of the mysterious art of alchemy, or as it was more commonly known then, chymistry.
Only a tiny fraction of Newton’s work on alchemy has been published but he wrote around a million words on the subject including laboratory notes, indexes of alchemical substances and transcripts from other sources.
On his death in 1727, Newton had over 100 manuscripts filled with alchemical material, sold by auctioneers Sotheby as part of a larger collection in 1936. This side of Newton was often an embarrassment to his admirers and his first biographer, John Conduitt, like many commentators who followed played down the role of alchemy (and other pursuits) in Newton’s work, stating;
“When he was tired with his severer studies his only relief and amusement was going to some other as History & Chronology or Divinity & Chymistry”.
Just how important the study of alchemy was to Newton only began to be recognised in 1947, when John Maynard Keynes, who bought much of the work from Sotheby, declared in his essay, ‘Newton, the Man’;
“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians”.
The discipline of alchemy can be split into three separate parts. Alchemists were responsible for a large group of technologies that included making pigments and dyes, manufacturing mineral acids and distillation of ‘strong waters’ for drink. These and other skills were often used to provide an income for the alchemist.
The second part of an alchemists work was to be at the forefront of early modern pharmacology with a new emphasis on mineral based drugs with a stress on the use of laboratory technologies such as distillation and sublimation for their production.
The third area of study and perhaps the most mysterious was the search for a formula for turning less precious materials such as base metals into gold, known by the Greek term ‘chrysopoeia’. Newton was involved in all three sections of the discipline and devoted much time on practical experiments into the nature of matter and the possibility of changing it into different forms.
He also devoted much of his time studying the work of earlier alchemists such as John de Monte Snyders’, who wrote, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Planets,’ a work of over 20,000 words which Newton copied out in longhand and added his own thoughts and findings.
As most of his alchemical work remains unpublished, many questions still need to be answered regarding this side of the great man. For example it is unclear how much of the work was copied from others and how much was Newton’s own and to what extent his work in other disciplines was influenced by his alchemical pursuits.
These and other questions have begun to be addressed in recent years and a project started in 2004 called ‘The Chymistry of Isaac Newton’ by the University of Indiana is going a long way to address these issues by publishing on the internet the entire dossier of Newton’s alchemical work and attempting to replicate many of his experiments.