1 minute read


Alchemy In The Scientific Revolution, Eighteenth-century Cultures Of Chemistry, From Phlogiston To Oxygen

Where and when did chemistry originate? Some chemists would identify ancient Egypt as the birthplace of chemistry because of that culture's glassworks, cosmetics, and mummification techniques. Advocates of this theory might also refer to a possible etymology of the word chemistry from the Egyptian word for black. Other historians place the origins of chemistry amid ancient Greek theories of matter that formulated the basic concepts—principles, elements, and atoms—for understanding the individuality of material substances and their transformations. Others would argue that chemistry emerged in medieval alchemy: alchemists invented the laboratory that is still the site for the production of chemical knowledge, and they established and transmitted techniques and instruments that are still at work in many chemical processes. Meanwhile, historians of institutional life would assert that chemistry emerged in seventeenth-century Europe when public lectures and chairs of chemistry were created.

The variety of answers to the question of origins points to the multiple identities of chemistry. A posteriori it seems natural to consider chemistry as an autonomous academic science with technological applications in a variety of domains. However, this is only one face of chemistry. Whether we consider chemistry as a set of technological practices—such as metal reduction, dyeing, glass-making—or as a theory of matter transformations, or as a teachable and public knowledge enjoying an academic status, the chronological marks change dramatically.

The question of origin cannot be settled not only because chemistry is multifaceted, but also because the answer depends heavily on the image of chemistry one wants to convey. For instance, eighteenth-century chemists strongly denied any connection between chemistry and alchemy. The kind of useful and reliable discipline they wanted to promote on the academic stage was contrasted with the obscurity and fraudulent practices of alchemists, although this is a discontinuity seriously questioned by historians of alchemy at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to Chimaera