Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Geber's Alchemy

            Jabir ibn Hayyan, or Geber as he is more commonly known in the Latin west, was, according to Henderson, the first practical alchemist (11).  It has been speculated by many scholars that Geber, if he existed, did not actually complete most of the works that have been attributed to him because there is too much disparity in the style and content of them, but that writers of the Ismaili group may have themselves created much or all of the work under the Geber pen name (Linden 80).  If the Geber of alchemical fame did indeed exist, it is believed he was born in modern-day Iran around 721 C.E. and eventually died while under house arrest in Iraq around 815 C.E. (“Abu Musa”). 

            Geber is well known for his many contributions to the field of chemistry.  He used a rigorous systematic method of experimentation in both his alchemical and chemical works.  He has been credited in some fashion for the invention of more than twenty types of basic chemistry related equipment, including the retort and alembic.  More importantly it is believed that he may have been the first to discover the processes for creating many different acids, including hydrochloric and sulfuric acids, the method for distillation, and crystallization, all of which were important in the development and evolution of work in the field of chemistry (Hassan).
The first essential in chemistry is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain the least degree of mastery.
Outside of his chemistry Geber also made many contributions to the processes of manufactured materials such as: fire resistant paper, an ink that could be read in the dark, an additive to prevent rust and which would make cloth repel water, improving the quality of steel production, and alterations to the methods of tanning and leatherworking (al-Faruqi and al-Faruqi 328).  He also managed to create a substance with the ability to dissolve gold into its most basic form.  The created substance known as aqua regia, because of its ability to dissolve the noble metals, was a combination of nitric and hydrochloric acids.  He was able to achieve this feat by combining common rock salt with vitriol (Hassan).
            His alchemical and chemical practices are often indistinguishable from one another.  In his works he began to classify the elements he came across in to three opposing categories, much like our modern periodic table of elements, including the idea of metal and non-metal elements.  The categories were Spirits, Metals, and non-malleable substances.  The spirits were substances which would evaporate when heated: arsenic, mercury, sulfur, and ammonium chloride were among those included in this category.  The metals included many of the commonly known elements that are today classified as metals and were able to formed and shaped when heated: gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, and iron were among those included in the metal category.  His third category, non-malleable substances, is really just a trash heap of what remained that could not be classified into the other two categories; much of what would fall in to this category are those elements which exist in a liquid form naturally on the Earth, but also those solids which have no electrical properties or which are not able to be shaped, even when heated: specifically any substance which is able to be turned into a powder, such as stones (Anawti 866).
Geber’s work including revising the Aristotelian physics of the natural world.  Instead of merely earth, air, fire, and water as the make-up of everything in the Earth, Geber posited that the metals were themselves made up of differing amounts of sulfur and mercury (Johnson 37).  He added to this the properties of hot, cold, dry, and moist.  He believed that by rearranging the sulfur-mercury content of certain metals he would be able to change the metal itself (i.e. turn lead into gold).  This idea, the idea of chemical equivalents, combined with his work into acids was possibly the first mention of acid-base neutrality in chemistry.
            It is through his attempts to change the sulfuric-mercurial content of metals that he began to search for the al-iksir.  Elixer, when Romanized, is the substance which would allow him to change the chemical properties of any substance.  This great elixir would evolve into the all too distant philosopher’s stone throughout European alchemy in the middle ages.
For we endeavour to make one substance, yet compounded and composed of many; so permanently fixed, that being put upon the fire, the fire cannot injure; and that it may be mixed with metals in flux, and flow with them, and enter with that which in them is of an ingressible substance; and be premixed with that, which in them is of a permixable substance; and be consolidated with that, which in them is of a consolidate substance; and be fixed with that, which in them is of a fixable substance; and not be burned by those things which burn not Gold and Silver; and take away consolidations and weights with due ignition.
Geber can be marked as the beginning point for Medieval chemistry and alchemy.  His works created the fields themselves and clearly, at least after translation, posted the goals of the fields.  He was instrumental for the development of experiment in natural philosophy and the appearance of what would a millennium later come to be known as the scientific method.


al-Faruqi, Ismail and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi. The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York: Al-Saadawi Publications, 1986.
Anawti, Geoerges C. The Encyclopaedia of the HIstory of Arabic Science. Vol. 3. 1996.
Hassan, Ahmad Y. History of Sience and Technology in Islam. 10 December 2009 <>.
Henderson, Joseph L. Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis. East Sussez, UK: Psychology Press, 2003.
Johnson, A.J. Johnson's (revised) universal cyclopaedia. New York: A.J. Johnson & Co., 1885.
Linden, Stanton J. The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

This article originally written December 10th, 2009 for OU HSCI 3833 - The Scientific Revolution.

No comments:

Post a Comment