Experimenting with the Past

In 17th-century England, transmutational alchemy was pursued by some of the most distinguished proponents of experimental philosophy, including Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Boyle learned chemistry from one of the century’s most influential alchemists, George Starkey, who wrote extensive commentaries on George Ripley’s verses. Newton also transcribed medieval alchemical texts — including a description of the Ripley Scroll — which he studied for practical content. For these natural philosophers, medieval sources offered valuable repositories of experimental as well as historical information.

Robert Boyle (1627-91), The Sceptical Chymist, 1661 (Oxford: H. Hall for R. Davis and B. Took)

Rare Books Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

In the Sceptical Chymist, Robert Boyle challenged the Paracelsian idea that matter was composed of three chemical principles: Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt. Yet the work does not disavow transmutational alchemy. Boyle himself conducted extensive alchemical experiments, and studied the work of Ripley and other medieval alchemists. His own view that matter was composed of particles drew on arguments advanced in earlier alchemical writings, including those of Eirenaeus Philalethes — which, unknown to Boyle, were authored by his own chemistry tutor, George Starkey.

Eyraeneus Philaletha, pseud. (George Starkey, 1628-65), Secrets Reveal'd; or, An Open Entrance to the Shut-Palace of the King, 1669 (London: Printed by W. Godbid for William Cooper)

Rare Books Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Secrets Reveal’d sets down the signature, antimony-based practice of George Starkey, one of the 17th century’s most influential alchemical writers. Born in Bermuda, Starkey studied at Harvard College before moving to London, where he crafted the persona of Eirenaeus Philalethes, a fictive American adept. His commentaries on George Ripley were published posthumously as Ripley Reviv’d (1678). By reinterpreting Ripley’s “red lead” as antimony, Starkey promoted his own chemical innovations while profiting from Ripley’s authority as a famous English adept.

Star regulus of antimony (Modern reconstruction of early modern process)

Courtesy of Lawrence M. Principe

This alchemical product is made by first heating stibnite (antimony ore) with iron and saltpeter to extract and purify the metal. The molten antimony cools slowly beneath a layer of slag, creating this dramatic, crystalline structure. George Starkey and Isaac Newton were among those who reproduced this effect.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Praeparatio mercurii ad lapidem per regulam et lunam, between 1670 and 1678 (England)

Science History Institute, Philadelphia

Isaac Newton devoted decades to studying and practicing transmutational alchemy. He also transcribed thousands of pages of alchemical notes, including this recipe by George Starkey, copied from an earlier manuscript: “On the Preparation of the [Sophick] Mercury for the [Philosophers’] stone by means of the stellate regulus of Mars [i.e. iron] and Luna [i.e. silver] from the Manuscripts of the American Philosopher.” The title refers to the mysterious Eirenaeus Philalethes—in reality, the pseudonym used by Starkey.

Elias Ashmole (1617–92), ed. Theatrum chemicum Britannicum, Containing Severall Poeticall Pieces of our Famous English Philosophers, Who Have Written the Hermetique Mysteries, 1652 (London: Printed by J. Grismond for N. Brooks, 1652)

E.F. Smith Collection, University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

This copy of Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum was owned by Isaac Newton. Newton’s notes reveal both a practical and a historical interest in 15th-century alchemical verses, particularly those of George Ripley. Newton paid close attention to references to the philosophical mercury, sometimes adding cross-references to Eirenaeus Philalethes’ discussion of mercury in Secrets Reveal’d. Here, below the title of Ripley’s dedicatory poem to Edward IV, Newton notes that the king “raigned from 1460 to 1483.”