Alchemy is an ancient science system and magic devoted to finding a way to transmute, or change, substances from one form into another. In their searches for the secret of transmutation, ancient alchemists made important discoveries that helped lay the foundations for the modern science of chemistry, hence the science before science. Two of the major concerns of alchemists were the transmutation of lead and other base metals into gold, and the search for the elixir of life, which they believed would cure all diseases and illnesses, making it possible for man to live forever.
The belief of the ancient alchemists was that all metals were composed of sulphur and mercury, though in different proportions. They thought they would be able to change a base metal into gold if they took the time to rearrange the proportions of sulphur and mercury in the base stone they used. They formulated the stone on their own, but it always contained salt, mercury and sulphur. They believed that if they used red sulphur, this would help it change to gold much faster and if it contained white sulphur, the result would be silver.
According to legend, the Greek god Hermes (Mercury in the Roman gods) was the inventor of alchemy. Another legend states that this science was the art of fallen angels who then taught it to humans. It is believed, though, that ancient alchemy originated in Egypt about 300 B.C. and it was around this time that Greek alchemists attempted to make gold. They were not successful in the venture, but in the process they did discover that if they treated copper with mercury the result was a stone that looked like gold. From Egypt, the practice of alchemy spread to the Middle East and then to western Europe. It was widely practiced during the Middle Ages, but with the scientific discoveries of the 18th century, it fell into disuse.
The rituals and procedures of ancient alchemy are not found in modern science. Many alchemists were revealed as con artists who relied on trickery to deceive gullible people who believed in magic and superstition. Even the monks of the Middle Ages dabbled in alchemy until it was forbidden to do so by the Pope.
There were a few alchemists who did make significant contributions to the growth of modern science. These included such names as Bacon and Paracelsus. Their experiments have provided scientists with information about mercury, salt, and sulphur and about the chemical processes of condensation, evaporation and combustion.
Some modern scientists have taken up where these alchemists left off and with the use of modern technology they have been able to expand on their rudimentary findings and actually produce the results that were impossible in earlier times. It has even been possible to make gold, but by using lead rather than sulphur and mercury.