Newton’s recipe for alchemists’ mercury rediscovered
The document, which dates back to the seventeenth century was handwritten by Isaac Newton himself and explains the fundamental part of the process to create the mythical Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that alchemists believed could transmute base metals into gold
The document was previously located for decades in a private collection but last month, the alchemical manuscript was acquired by the Chemical Heritage Foundation from the United Statis, who aims at making the ancient manuscript available to the public.
According to website Chemistry World, ‘Philosophic mercury was [thought to be] a substance that could be used to break down metals into their constituent parts,’ explains James Voelkel, the CHF’s curator of rare books. ‘The idea is if you break the metals down you can then reassemble them and make different metals.’ The process was part of the effort to make the philosopher’s stone, he adds, a mythical substance that alchemists believed could turn lead into gold.
Translated from Latin, the manuscript title is: ‘Preparation of the [Sophick] Mercury for the [Philosophers’] Stone by the Antimonial Stellate Regulus of Mars and Luna from the Manuscripts of the American Philosopher’. The manuscript is believed to describe the necessary process to make ‘sophick’ – short for ‘philosophic’ – mercury.
Researchers are not sure whether Newton ever tried to create the substance, even though, knowing the work of the genius and his interest in the esoteric subjects, they are inclined to say yes.
Isaac Newton was one of the most important scientists of the past and is best known for his formulation of the laws of universal gravitation and great influence in the world of physics He was also an enthusiastic alchemist. In fact, the manuscript in question also briefly describes one of his experiments in this field of hidden knowledge.
‘It’s often the case with Newton’s manuscripts that if they lie around long enough he turns them over and writes something else on the back,’ says Voelkel. ‘In this case, there is a note of an experiment that he did. It’s a recipe for distilling a volatile spirit out of lead ore … which corresponds nicely with Newton’s interpretation of various alchemical authors.’
While scholars are unsure when exactly it was written, the estimate that Newton’s copy of Philalethes’ sophick mercury text could even possibly pre-date the first known printed version, published in 1678.
It’s probably the case that he was copying a manuscript that existed before the publication of the printed work,’ says Voelkel. ‘The manuscript he’s copying has, at least, one mistake in it. At some point, the author writes the Latin word ‘ex’ which means ‘out of’ instead of ‘et’ which means ‘and’ – Newton recognises this as being a mistake and corrects it in square brackets. In the printed source this has been corrected.’
‘The collection is gigantic … the estimate of Newton’s alchemical output is something like a million words in his own hand. This is just another little page in a corpus of hundreds and hundreds of documents,’ said Voelkel.