1001 Journeys from Alchemy to Chemistry

Join early chemists on exciting journeys of discovery from Alchemy to Chemistry with 1001 Inventions

Modern children stepping into Al-Razi's laboratory, imaginary sceneOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Explore the world of alchemy and how it helped contribute towards the foundations of the science of chemistry.

Actors performing ‘1001 Inventions: Journeys from Alchemy to Chemistry’ at UNESCOOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

This exhibit includes images of manuscripts, fictional illustrations and short videos that bring to life the contributions to chemistry by lesser-known pioneers from ancient civilisations.

Poster for 1001 Inventions Journeys from Alchemy to ChemistryOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Published online through the support of The Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund (UK)

Fictional illustration of a child in a laboratory meeting Russian chemist Dimitry MendeleevOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Our journey begins at your local school, where there is a good chance that you’ll find a poster on the wall with all the chemical elements and their symbols from Hydrogen to Uranium.

Fictional illustration of a child in a laboratory meeting Russian chemist Dimitry MendeleevOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

This classification of elements is called the Periodic Table, and it was first created by a Russian chemist called Dimitry Mendeleev.

Fictional illustration of Russian chemist Dimitry MendeleevOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev (died 1907) was a Russian chemist and inventor. He is best remembered for formulating the Periodic Law and creating a farsighted version of the periodic table of elements.

The Modern Periodic TableOriginal Source: Royal Society for Chemistry (UK)

The periodic table (the periodic table of elements) arranges the chemical elements according to their recurring properties. The modern periodic table provides a useful framework for analysing chemical reactions, and is widely used in chemistry, physics and other sciences.

Click here to explore this fully interactive periodic table produced by the Royal Society for Chemistry (UK).

By Fritz GoroLIFE Photo Collection

These elements represent all the different kinds of atoms that exist, and scientists now understand very well how all these atoms fit together to make our world including our own bodies. That’s what we call Chemistry.

The Alchemist (c. 1650) by Teniers the Younger, DavidMauritshuis

But how and when was the science of chemistry first invented?

Throughout the ages, scholars tried to understand what the world was made of and presented various thoughts.

Sci Main Inc AlchemyLIFE Photo Collection

For millennia people were attracted to practices that partly searched for a way of turning base metals to precious ones such as gold.

Hocus Pocus, or Searching for the Philosopher's Stone (published 1800) by Thomas RowlandsonNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Commonly known as alchemy, this practice continued until a few hundred years ago. Harry Potter fans would be familiar with a stone thought to have magical powers and could turn base metals to gold.

Alchemist (1556 - 1560) by Galle, PhilipsRijksmuseum

You can discover more about ‘Alchemy and the legend of the philosopher’s stone’ on this link.

Gold coin of Kumaragupta I (415/447)British Museum

In India, ancient chemistry grew out of the early efforts to develop an elixir and to turn base metals into gold.

Ancient Indian Alchemy

Landscape with Daoist immortals in the mountains (17th century) by Artist: Copy after Qiu Ying, Artist: Formerly attributed to Wang ZhenpengSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

In ancient China, Daoists, followers of a Chinese philosophical tradition called Daoism, believed that cinnabar, a common source of mercury in nature, could be refined by firing to make a pill of longevity or even turn into gold, hence the term “refining” or “firing” the pill of immortality.

Artist fictional illustration of ancient Greek scholars debating the elements of the universe.Original Source: 1001 Inventions

The ancient Greeks tried to explain what the world was made of and thought everything was made of four elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire.

Artist fictional animation of Jabir ibn Hayyan.Original Source: 1001 Inventions

A thousand years after the Greeks came a man who helped change everything. He was known as Geber the Alchemist, but his real name was Jabir ibn Hayyan.

Knowledge from East and West', artistic impressionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham 'short film

Jabir ibn Hayyan lived in the 8th century in Kufa, in modern day Iraq, and was thought of as a bit of a mystic. Back then, Kufa was one of the many multi-cultured centres of learning in the vast Islamic empire that spread from Spain in the West to the border of China in the East.

18th-century Arabic treaties on chemistry showing the distillation processOriginal Source: British LIbrary Collection

The experiments Jabir carried out were recorded in his books in a very complicated way. But underneath all the gibberish was some amazing science. Jabir is thought of now as one of the world’s first real chemists because of his detailed experiments.

Actors performing ‘1001 Inventions: Journeys from Alchemy to Chemistry’ at UNESCOOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Also called Geber, Jabir ibn Hayyan scientifically systemised chemistry. He devised and perfected sublimation, liquefaction, crystallisation, distillation, purification, oxidation, evaporation and filtration. He also wrote about how chemicals combined, without loss of character, to form a union of elements together that were too small for the naked eye to see.

He discovered sulfuric, nitric and nitromuriatic acids, all now very important to the chemical industry.

Actors performing ‘1001 Inventions: Journeys from Alchemy to Chemistry’ at UNESCOOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Jabir refers to the word Al-Qali (alkali) which is derived from qalai (to dry or roast in a pan). Al-qali is “the substance that has been roasted” or “ashes of the plant saltwork.” Today we know that acids and alkalis play an important role in chemistry and react differently in indicator solutions.

Artist fictional animation of Al-RaziOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Two centuries after Jabir, another scientist took chemistry to the next level. His name was Al-Razi and in his book of the Secret of the Secrets he organised substances according to their chemical properties. It was a long way from the four basic elements of the ancient Greeks.

Artist fictional animation of Al-RaziOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Also known by his Latinised name, Rhazes (played here by an actor, left), Al-Razi introduced exact classification of natural substances in his book, The Secret of the Secrets dividing them into earthly, animal and vegetable substances.

Al-Kindi (801-873)Original Source: 1001 Inventions

Another pioneer, also from Kufa, was Al-Kindi (died 873). He was a polymath, philosopher and musician. He played an important role in the cultural and scientific scene in Baghdad in the 9th century and was linked to the House of Wisdom.

European depiction of the physician Rhazes, in Gerard of Cremona's Recueil des traités de médecine 1250–1260.Original Source: 1001 Inventions

A lot of Al-Kindi’s work was translated into Latin by scholars like Gerard of Cremona, who was a 12th century Italian translator of scientific books from Arabic into Latin, so today there is more of his work in Latin than Arabic.

13th century illustration of a pharmacy with chemists preparing medicationsOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Al-Kindi described 107 recipes in his Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations in the 9th century.

In this, and other of his books, he detailed the distillation process.

Exhibition interpretation of Al-Razi's laboratory, 1001 Inventions Exhibition Amman.Original Source: 1001 Inventions

Distillation was one of the processes developed and refined by Jabir and his successors. Early chemists worked to create a panoply of useful substances from rose water to hair dye, soap to paint, crude oil to alcohol.

Jabir ibn Hayyan is said to have used an alembic still for distillation. In this curiously shaped glass vessel, a liquid could be boiled down, allowing its separate pure parts to be collected as they condensed and trickled down the spout. The word “alembic,” like much chemical terminology, comes from the Arabic al-anbiq, which means “the head of the still.”

14th century manuscript showing hemispherical vessels with a rose-and-water mixtureOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

The distillation process still forms an essential part of the perfume industry today. Distillation continues to be widely used in many industries including oil and perfume. Simple home experiments can demonstrate the principle of distillation.

Educational workshops organised by 1001 Inventions at UNESCO headquartersOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Lots of chemical processes developed by Jabir were used in industries at the time. One of the biggest chemical industries during this period was soap. At that time fragrant solid bars of soap were new.

13th-century painting depicting activity in a market. A pharmacist's shop appears in the painting1001 Inventions

Despite its importance, soap making wasn’t the only industry that flourished. Materials such as plastic, rayon, artificial rubber, and medicines such as insulin and penicillin, all stem from the chemical industry of the early Arabic Science thanks to the systematic approach of those chemists.

Chemistry was not confined to laboratories but used in various industries and applications.

A 17th-century manuscript shows the paper-making process.Original Source: 1001 Inventions

In the field of industrial chemistry, one of the biggest advances was the isolation and manufacture of alum from “aluminous” rocks, through artificial weathering of alunite. Alum was used in papermaking, paint production, and the production of sulfuric acid.

Jabir made attempts to make paper that would not burn and ink that you could read in the dark. Then in the 11th century, Ibn Badis from Tunisia described how silver filings were pulverised with distilled wine to provide a means of writing with silver.

A 19th-century manuscript shows a dyer at work dyeing clothesOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

With the rise of the textile industry during the golden age, the need to produce varied coloured cloth increased. A vast array of natural, colourful dyes was then produced. In the city of Fez alone, there were 116 dye works.

Although dyes were developed mainly from natural sources, today dyes are developed synthetically. The first synthetic dye was actually discovered by accident by the British chemist William Henry Perkin in 1856.

Fictional modern child time traveling to witness ancient Chinese scholars making paperOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Paper-making saw leaps of advancement in production techniques and volume during this Golden Age. The know-how was initially passed on by Chinese scholars in the 8th century.

Fictional modern child time traveling to witness ancient Chinese scholars making paperOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

With the rise of this industry, books could be written to spread those new scientific ideas. The work of scholars like Jabir and Al-Razi got translated into Latin and spread across Europe.

By N R FarbmanLIFE Photo Collection

So far, we know of 118 different elements and that number is growing. New elements are made in nuclear accelerators in which beams of atoms are smashed together at tremendous energies.

Curie, Marie 1867-1934LIFE Photo Collection

The science of chemistry continued to be developed further in more modern times by scientists like Robert Boyle, Dimitry Mendeleev and Marie Curie. Click here to learn more about the incredible life of Marie Curie.

1001 Inventions show for children held at UNESCO headquartersOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Today, the history of science is being used to inspire a future generation of scientists through interactive educational and fun experiences produced by 1001 Inventions in partnership with a global network of organisations.

1001 Inventions show for children held at UNESCO headquartersOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Click here to see how the global initiative “1001 Inventions: Journeys from Alchemy to Chemistry” helped engage millions of young people around the world in partnership with UNESCO.

1001 Inventions show for children held at UNESCO headquartersOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Whatever Happened to Alchemy? Alchemy didn’t end. It transformed. The contemporary laboratory looks nothing like those of the past, until we look closer. Long before the periodic table, or standard weights and measurements, aspiring chemists had to develop their own systems for carefully evaluating their materials and documenting their results. Some of their conventions were adapted by later chemists, though they now seem invisible to us.

Click here to discover more about the ‘Age of Alchemy’.

Click here to watch the full short film 1001 Inventions: Journeys from Alchemy to Chemistry.

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Supported by The Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund (UK)

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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