A 17th century manuscript written by Sir Isaac Newton was purchased at a Bonhams auction in Pasadena, California by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), after spending decades locked away in a private collection. Now the incredible and mysterious contents have finally been made public.
The manuscript, titled “Preparation of Mercury to a Stone Through Metallic Antimony and Silver: From a Manuscript of an American Philosopher” is a copy of a known text authored by Harvard- educated Alchemist, George Starkey, who published under the pseudonym Eirenaeus Philaethes.
James Voelke, a curator of rare books at the Chemical Heritage Foundation spoke to Emma Stoye at Chemistry World regarding the significance of this manuscript.
“Philosophic mercury was [thought to be] a substance that could be used to break down metals into their constituents parts. The idea is if you break the metals down, you can then reassemble them and make different metals.”
The Philosopher’s stone is a mythical substance created by the alchemical method known as The Mangum Opus, and as Vokel described, has properties capable of transforming lead, iron, mercury, or copper into gold. It was thought even to be able to help humans achieve immortality. Other mentioned properties include: creation of perpetually burning lamps, transmutation of common crystals, reviving dead plants, and the creation of a flexible or malleable glass.
Sir Isaac Newton, best known for his study of gravity and the laws of motion, has written and studied extensively about alchemy. Historians like Voelke estimate that Newton has written over one million words about the subject.
For centuries, the Philosopher’s Stone was the most sought-after object in alchemy, until scientists figured out that everything it promised was entirely impossible. It’s not even clear if Newton ever actually attempted the philosophic mercury recipe that he had copied from George Starkey, but Voelke claims it would not have been “out of character” for Newton to try it for himself.
The manuscript is set to be made public at “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project.” An gigantic online repository run by Indiana University documenting Sir Isaac Newton’s work.
From the Bonhams posting:
A MAJOR DOCUMENT OF THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION– LINKING ENGLAND’S GREATEST SCIENTIST WITH AMERICA’S FIRST PUBLISHED SCIENTIST.
A document of critical relevance to Newton’s own chemical researches, the present manuscript records George Starkey’s procedure for reducing antimony through iron and then amalgamating it with mercury through the mediation of silver (with additional methods given to further purify this resultant “philosophic mercury” by acids and heat). Iron-reduced antimony tends to form a “star regulus” – a shard-like crystalline pattern – which was of interest to many chemists in the 17th century; and some scholars conjecture that Newton had an especially intense interest in it because of his conjoint researches into gravity – Newton effectively seeing “gravitational attraction” at work in the star’s structure. Newton’s own laboratory notebooks certainly evidence that Newton spent considerable time investigating the “star regulus” of antimony and different methods for fusing it with other metals; and these same notebooks in fact also contain several pages of notes directly elaborating on Starkey’s writings about antimonial amalgam.
A Harvard-educated chemist/ physician, Starkey has justly been called “America’s First Cosmopolitan” (world-citizen). Starkey represented a new breed of chemist who embraced quantifiable technique and performed well-reasoned laboratory experiments based in a consistent theory of matter. His writings – both those published under his own name and those published under his pseudonym (“Eirenaeus Philalethes”) – were read by many of the most famous European luminaries of the period (e.g. Leibniz and Locke), and Newton in particular held Starkey in the highest esteem. Starkey was personally known to Robert Boyle – by some accounts he tutored Boyle in chemistry — and it was probably Boyle himself who introduced Newton to Starkey’s work.
Newton’s own views on chemistry and matter were significantly shaped by Starkey. Newton’s De Natura Acidorum – his sole lifetime published work on chemistry – articulates the notion of a complex layered corpuscle which undoubtedly derives from Starkey’s “shell” theory of matter, and the principle of “mediation” presented therein similarly appears to originate in Starkey’s chemistry. The great consanguinity of Newton’s and Starkey’s thought is further evidenced by the fact that Newton’s famed “Clavis” — long-thought to be Newton’s own original composition on chemical regimen – is in fact derived from Starkey’s 1651 letter to Robert Boyle. Starkey is in fact the most referenced author in Newton’s famed “Index Chemicus” (with some 302 citations – more than double the next closest author); and Starkey’s 1669 Secrets Reveal’d is unquestionably the most thumbed book in Newton’s vast chemical library – read and annotated by Newton multiple times and “used almost to the point of extinction.”
Newton’s transcription of this text was made from a pre-publication manuscript of Starkey’s “Experimenta de Praeparatione Mercurii Sophici,” a work first published in 1678. The manuscript Newton copied appears to have been an earlier variant form of the printed text as his transcription lacks the fifth paragraph of the printed text. Starkey’s text is found on the first 5 pages of this manuscript; the text on the sixth page appears to be a topically-related complement to Starkey’s text proper. Both Starkey’s text and Newton’s additions are characteristically written using coded terms (Decknamen) for the elements and processes they are discussing. Only one other manuscript copy of this text – made by some other transcriber — is known (at Glasgow University: Ferguson MS 85).
Long hidden from view in the Portsmouth archive, Newton’s chemical papers have only been publicly available since 1936, and their academic study is only now gaining momentum. Based in the study of manuscripts such as the present, the new scholarly paradigm of Newton is increasingly evidencing the integral connection of Newton’s physics and his “chemical philosophy.” Almost all of Newton’s manuscripts are institutionalized. The present offering is a very rare opportunity to acquire a major scientific document by a man rightly called “one of humanity’s supreme geniuses.”
[Starkey’s life and work – and, too, his influence on Newton – have principally been studied by William Newman, the chemistry historian and general editor of “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton” project at the University of Indiana.]