John Phin.

The seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels online

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Online LibraryJohn PhinThe seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels → online text (page 6 of 12)
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" To provide and make that all the Weights of the descend-
ing side of a Wheel shall be perpetually further from the
Centre, then those of the mounting side, and yet equal in
number and heft to the one side as the other. A most in-
credible thing, if not seen, but tried before the late king
(of blessed memory) in the Tower, by my directions, two
Extraordinary Embassadors accompanying His Majesty, and
the Duke of Richmond and Duke Hamilton, with most of
the Court, attending Him. The Wheel was 14. Foot over,
and 40. Weights of 50. pounds apiece. Sir William Balfcre,
then Lieutenant of the Tower, can justifie it, with several
others. They all saw, that no sooner these great Weights
passed the Diameter-line of the lower side, but they hung
a foot further from the Centre, nor no sooner passed the
Diameter-line of the upper side, but they hung a foot nearer.
Be pleased to judge the consequence."


Such is the account given by the Marquis himself, and
that he exhibited such a wheel at the time and place which
he names, I have not the least doubt. And that some of
the weights on one side hung a foot further from the cen-
ter than did weights on the other side is also no doubt true,
but, as the judging of the "consequence" is left to our-
selves we know that after the first impulse given to it had
been expended, the wheel would simply stand still unless
kept in motion by some external force.

Mr. Dircks in his " Life, Times and Scientific Labours
of the Second Marquis of Worcester," gives an engraving
of a wheel which complies with all the conditions laid down
by the Marquis and which is thus described :

" Let the annexed diagram, Fig. 17, represent a wheel of
14 feet in diameter, having 40 spokes, seven feet each, and
with an inner rim coinciding with the periphery, at one
foot distance all round. Next provide 40 balls or weights,
hanging in the center of cords or chains two feet long.
Now, fasten one end of this cord at the top of the center


spoke C, and the other end of the cord to the next right-
hand spoke one foot below the upper end, or on the inner
ring; proceed in like manner with every other spoke in
succession; and it will be found that, at A, the cord will
have the position shown outside the wheel; while at B, C,
and D, it will also take the respective positions, as shown
on the outside. The result in this case will be, that all
the weights on the side A, C, D, hang to the great or outer
circle, while on the side B, C, D, all the weights are sus-
pended from the lesser or inner circle. And if we reverse
the motion of the wheel, turning it from the right to the
left hand, we shall reverse these positions also (the lower
end of the cord sliding in a groove towards a left-hand
spoke), but without the wheel having any tendency to move
of itself."

But it is quite as likely that the wheel constructed by
the Marquis was like one of the "overbalancing" wheels
described at the beginning of this article.

It is upon this " scantling " that has been based the
claim that the Marquis really invented a ,perpetual motion,
but to those who have seen much of inventors of this kind,
the discrepancy between the suggested claim made by the
Marquis and what we know must have been the actual
results, is easily explained. The Marquis felt sure that
the thing ought to work, and the excuse for its not doing
so was probably the imperfect manner in which the wheel
was made. Only put a little better work on it, says the
inventor, and it will go.

Caspar Kaltoff, mechanician to the Marquis, probably
got the wheel up in a hurry so as to exhibit it on the occa-
sion of the king's visit to the tower. If he only had had a
little more time he would have made a machine that would
have worked. (?) I have heard the same excuse under
almost the same circumstances, scores of times.

The case of Orffyreus was very different. The real


name of this inventor was Jean Ernest Elie-Bessler, and he
is said to have manufactured the name Orffyreus by plac-
ing his own name between two lines of letters, and picking
- out alternate letters above and below. He was educated
for the church, but turned his attention to mechanics and
became an expert clock maker. His character, as given
by his contemporaries was fickle, tricky, and irascible.
Having devised a scheme for perpetual motion he con-
structed several wheels which he be self-moving.
The last one which he made was 1 2 feet in diameter and
14 inches deep, the material being light pine boards,
covered with waxed cloth to conceal the mechanism. The
axle was 8 inches thick, thus affording abundant space for
concealed machinery.

This wheel was submitted to the Landgrave of Hesse
who had it placed in a room which was then locked, and
the lock secured with the Landgrave's own seal. At the
end of forty days it was found to be still running.

Professor 'sGravesande having been employed by the
Landgrave to make an examination and pronounce upon
its merits, he endeavored to perform his work thoroughly ;
this so irritated Orffyreus that the latter broke the machine
in pieces, and left on the wall a writing stating that he had
been driven to do this by the impertinent curiosity of the
Professor !

I have no doubt that this was a clear case of fraud, and
that the wheel was driven by some mechanism concealed
in the huge axle. As already stated, Orffyreus was at
one time a clock maker ; now clocks have been made to go
for a whole year without having to be rewound, so that
forty days was not a very long time for the apparatus to
keep in motion.


Professor 'sGravesande seems to have had some faith
in the invention, but then we must remember that it would
not have been very difficult to deceive an honest old pro-
fessor whose confidence in humanity was probably un-
bounded. The crowning argument against the genuineness
of the motion was the fact that the inventor refused to
allow a thorough examination, although a wealthy patron
stood ready with a large reward if the machine could be
proved to be what was claimed.

And now comes up the question which has arisen in
regard to other problems, and will recur again and again
to the end of the chapter : Is a perpetual motion machine
one of the scientific impossibilities ?

The answer to this question lies in the fact that there
is no principle more thoroughly established than that no
combination of machinery can create energy. So far as
our present knowledge of nature goes we might as well
try to create matter as to create energy, and the creation
of energy is essential to the successful working of a per-
petual-motion machine because some power must always
be lost through friction and other resistances and must be
supplied from some source if the machine is to keep on
moving. And since the law of the conservation of energy
makes it positive that no more power can be given out by
a machine than was originally supplied to it, it seems as
certain as anything can be that the construction of a per-
petual-motion machine is one of the impossibilities.


HE "accursed thirst for gold" has existed from
the earliest ages and, as the apostle says, " is the
root of all evil." Those who have a greed for
power, a craving for luxury, or a fever for lust,
all think that their wildest dreams might be realized if
they could only command sufficient gold. Never was
there a more lurid picture of a mind inflamed with all these
evil passions than that set forth by Ben Jonson in the
Second Act of " The Alchemist," and who can doubt but
that such desires and dreams spurred on many, either to
engage in an actual search for the philosopher's stone, or
to become the dupes of what Van Helmont calls " a dia-
bolical crew of gold and silver sucking flies and leeches."

As we might naturally expect, the early history of
alchemy is shrouded in myths and fables. Zosimus the
Panapolite tells us that the art of Alchemy was first
taught to mankind by demons, who fell in love with the
daughters of men, and, as a reward for their favors, taught
them all the works and mysteries of nature. On this
Boerhaave remarks :

" This ancient fiction took its rise from a mistaken in-
terpretation of the words of Moses, * That the sons of God
saw the daughters of men that they were fair, and they
took them wives of all which they chose.' 1 From whence
it was inferred that the sons of God were daemons, con-
sisting of a soul, and a visible but impalpable body, like
1 Genesis vi, 2.


the image in a looking-glass (to which notion we find
several allusions in the evangelists); that they know all
things, appeared to men and conversed with them, fell
in love with women, had intrigues with them and revealed
secrets. From the same fable probably arose that of the
Sibyl, who is said to have obtained of Apollo the gift of
prophecy, and revealing the will of heaven in return for
a like favor. So prone is the roving mind of man to fig-
ments, which it can at first idly amuse itself with, and at
length fall down and worship."

This idea of the supernatural origin of the arts perme-
ates the ancient mythology which everywhere teaches that
men were taught the sacred arts of medicine and chemis-
try by gods and demigods.

Modern science discards all these mythological accounts.
Whatever knowledge the ancients acquired of medicine and
chemistry was, no doubt, reached along two lines phar-
macy and metallurgy. That the pharmacist or apothecary
exercised his calling at a very early period we have posi-
tive knowledge ; thus in the Book of Ecclesiastes we are
told that " dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary
to send forth a stinking savor," and that men at a very
early day found out the means of working iron, copper,
gold, silver, etc., is evident from the accounts given of
Vulcan and Tubalcain, as well as from the remains of old
tools and weapons. And that Alchemy, as it is generally
understood, is a comparatively modern outgrowth of these
two arts, is pretty certain. No mention of the art of con-
verting the baser metals into gold, and no account of a
universal medicine or elixir of life is to be found in any of
the authentic writings of the ancients. Homer, Aristotle,
and even Pliny are all silent on the subject, and those
writings which treat of the art, and which claim an ancient
origin, such as the books of Hermes Trismegistus, are now


regarded by the best authorities as spurious the evi-
dence that they were the work of a far later age being

Several writers have taken the ground that the alchemi-
cal treatises which have come down to us from the early
writers on the subject, are purely allegorical and do not
relate to material things, but to the principles of a higher
religion which, in those days, it was dangerous to expound
in plain language. One or two elaborate works and several
articles supporting this view have been published, but the
common-sense reader who will glance through the im-
mense collection of alchemical tracts gathered together by
Mangetus in two folio volumes of a thousand pages each,
will rise from such examination, very thoroughly convinced
that it was the actual metal gold, and the fabled universal
medicine that these writers had in view.

There can be little doubt that Geber, Roger Bacon,
Albertus Magnus, Raymond Lully, Helvetius, Van Hel-
mont, Basil Valentine, and others, describe very substan-
tial things with a minuteness of detail which leaves no
room for doubt as to their materiality though we cannot
always be sure of their identity.

Some confusion of thought has been caused by the
difference which has been made between the terms alchemy
and chemistry and their applications. The word alcJiemy
is simply the word chemistry with the Arabic word al,
which signifies the, prefixed, and the history of alchemy is
really the history of chemistry wild and erratic in its
beginnings, and giving rise to strange hopes and still
stranger theories, but ever working along the line of dis-
covery and progress. And, although many of the profes-
sional chemists or alchemists of the middle ages were


undoubted charlatans and quacks, yet did we not have
many of the same kind in the nineteenth century ? We
may use the word alchemist as a term of reproach, and apply
it to these early workers because their theories appear
to us to be absurd, but how do we know that the chemists
of the twenty-second century will not regard us in a similar
light, and set at naught the theories we so fondly cherish ?

Only seven out of the large number of metals now cata-
logued by us were known to the ancients ; these were
gold, silver, mercury, copper, tin, lead, and iron. And as it
happened that the list of so-called planets also numbered
exactly seven, it was thought that there must be a connec-
tion between the two, and, consequently, in the alchemical
writings, each metal was called by the name of that one of
the heavenly bodies which was supposed to be connected
with it in influence and quality.

In the astronomy of the ancients, as is generally known,
the earth occupied the center of the universe, and the list
of planets included the sun and moon. After them came
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. To the metal
gold was given the name of Sol, or the sun, on account
of its brightness and its power of resisting corroding agents ;
hence the compounds of gold were known as solar compounds
and solar medicines. As might have been expected, silver
was assigned to Luna or the moon, and in the modern
pharmacopoeia such terms as lunar caustic and lunar salts
still have a place. Mercury was, of course, appropriated to
the planet of that name. Copper was named after Venus,
and cupreous salts were known as venereal salts. Iron,
probably from its being the metal chiefly used for making
arms and armor, was dedicated to Mars, and we still speak
of martial salts. Tin was named after Jupiter from his bril-


liancy, the compounds of tin being called jovial salts. The
dull, leaden color of Saturn, with his apparently heavy and
slow motion, seemed to fit him for association with lead, and
we still have the saturnine ointment as a reminder of old
alchemical times.

Of these metals gold was supposed to be the only one
that was perfect, and the belief was general that if the
others could be purified and perfected they would be
changed to gold. Many of the old chemists worked faith-
fully and honestly to accomplish this, but the path to wealth
seemed so direct and the means for deception were so
ready and simple, that large numbers of quacks and charla-
tans entered the field and held out the most alluring induce-
ments to dupes who furnished them liberally with money
and other necessaries in the hope that when the discovery
was made they would be put in possession of unbounded
wealth. These dupes were easily deceived and led astray
by simple frauds, which scarcely rose to the level of amateur
legerdemain. In the " Memoirs of the Academy of
Sciences" for 1772, M. Geoffroy gives an account of the
various modes in which the frauds of these swindlers were
carried on. The following are a few of their tricks :
Instead of the mineral substances which they pretended
to transmute they put a salt of gold or silver at the bottom
of the crucible, the mixture being covered with some pow-
dered crucible and gum water or wax so that it might
look like the bottom of the crucible. Another method was
to bore a hole in a piece of charcoal, fill the hole with fine
filings of gold or silver, stopping it with powered charcoal,
mixed with some agglutinent so that the whole might look
natural. Then when the charcoal burned away, the silver
or gold was found in the bottom of the crucible. Or they


soaked charcoal in a solution of these metals and threw
the charcoal, when powdered, upon the material to be trans-
muted. Sometimes they whitened gold with mercury and
made it pass for silver or tin, and the gold when melted was
exhibited as the result of transmutation. A common ex-
hibition was to dip nails in a liquid and to take them out
apparently half converted into gold ; these nails consisted
of one-half iron neatly soldered to the other half, which was
gold, and covered with something to conceal the color.
The paint or covering was removed by the liquid. A very
common trick was the use of a hollow, iron stirring rod ;
the hollow was filled with gold or silver filings, and neatly
stopped with wax. When used to stir the contents of the
crucible the wax melted and allowed the gold or silver to
fall out.

These frauds were rendered all the more easy because
of certain statements which were current in regard to suc-
cessful attempts to convert lead and other metals into gold.
These accounts were vouched for by well-known chemists
and others of high standing. Perhaps the most famous of
these is that given by Helvetius in his " Brief of the Golden
Calf ; Discovering the Rarest Miracle in Nature ; how by
the smallest portion of the Philosopher's Stone, a great
piece of common lead was totally transmuted into the purest
transplendent gold, at the Hague in 1666." The following
is Brande's abridgment of this singular account.

" The 27th day of December, 1666, in the afternoon,
came a stranger to my house at the Hague, in a plebeick
habit, of honest gravity and serious authority, of a mean
stature and a little long face, black hair not at all curled,
a beardless chin, and about forty-four years (as I guess) of
age and born in North Holland. After salutation, he be-
secched me with great reverence to pardon his rude accesses,


for he was a lover of the Pyrotechnian art, and having
read my treatise against the sympathetic powder of Sir
Kenelm Digby, and observed my aoubt about the philo-
sophic mystery, induced him to ask me if I really was a
disbeliever as to the existence of an universal medicine
which would cure all diseases, unless the principal parts
were perished, or the predestinated time of death come.
I replied, I never met with an adept, or saw such a medi-
cine, though I had fervently prayed for it. Then I said,
* Surely you are a learned physician.' 'No,' said he, 'lam a
brass-founder, and a lover of chemistry. 1 He then took
from his bosom-pouch a neat ivory box, and out of it three
ponderous lumps of stone, each about the bigness of a
walnut. I greedily saw and handled for a quarter of an
hour this most noble substance, the value of which might
be somewhere about twenty tons of gold; and having
drawn from the owner many rare secrets of its admirable
effects, I returned him this treasure of treasures with a
most sorrowful mind, humbly beseeching him to bestow a
fragment of it upon me in perpetual memory of him, though
but the size of a coriander seed. ' No, no,' said he, ' that is
not lawful, though thou wouldest give me as many golden
ducats as would fill this room; for it would have particular
consequences, and if fire could be burned of fire, I would
at this instant rather cast it all into the fiercest flames.'
He then asked if I had a private chamber whose prospect
was from the public street; so I presently conducted him
to my best furnished room backwards, which he entered,
says Helvetius (in the true spirit of Dutch cleanliness),
without wiping his shoes, which were full of snow and
dirt. I now expected he would bestow some great secret
upon me ; but in vain. He asked for a piece of gold, and
opening his doublet showed me five pieces of that precious
metal which he wore upon a green riband, and which very
much excelled mine in flexibility and color, each being
the size of a small trencher. I now earnestly again craved
a crumb of the stone, and at last, out of his philosophical
commiseration, he gave me a morsel as large as a rape-
seed ; but I said, * This scanty portion will scarcely trans-
mute four grains of lead.' 'Then,' said he, 'Deliver it me
back : ' which I did, in hopes of a greater parcel ; but lie,
cutting off half with his nail, said : ' Even this is sufficient


for thee.' * Sir,' said I, with a dejected countenance, * what
means this ? ' And he said, * Even that will transmute half
an ounce of lead.' So I gave him great thanks, and said I
would try it, and reveal it to no one. He then took his
leave, and said he would call again next morning at nine.
I then confessed, that while the mass of his medicine was
in my hand the day before, I had secretly scraped off a
bit with my nail, which I projected on lead, but it caused no
transmutation, for the whole flew away in fumes. ' Friend,'
said he, * thou art more dexterous in committing theft than
in applying medicine ; hadst thou wrapt up thy stolen prey
in yellow wax, it would have penetrated and transmuted
the lead into gold.' I then asked if the philosophic work
cost much or required long time, for philosophers say that
nine or ten months are required for it. He answered,
'Their writings are only to be understood by the adepts,
without whom no student can prepare this magistery. Fling
not away, therefore, thy money and goods in hunting out
this art, for thou shalt never find it.' To which I replied,
' As thy master showed it thee so mayest thou perchance
discover something thereof to me who know the rudiments,
and therefore, it may be easier to add to a foundation than
begin anew.' ' In this art,' said he, ' it is quite otherwise,
for unless thou knowest the thing from head to heel, thou
canst not break open the glassy seal of Hermes. But
enough; tomorrow at the ninth hour I will show thee the
manner of projection.' But Elias never came again; so
my wife, who was curious in the art whereof the worthy
man had discoursed, teazed me to make the experiment
with the little spark of bounty the artist had left me; so
I melted half an ounce of lead, upon which my wife put
in the said medicine ; it hissed and bubbled, and in a quarter
of an hour the mass of lead was transmuted into fine gold,
at which we were exceedingly amazed. I took it to the
goldsmith, who judged it most excellent, and willingly
offered fifty florins for each ounce."

Such is the celebrated history of Elias the artist and
Dr. Helvetius.

Helvetius stood very high as a man and chemist, but in
connection with this and some other narratives of the same


kind, it may be well to remember that something over a
hundred years before that time the celebrated Paracelsus
had introduced laudanum.

The following is another history of transmutation, given
by Man get us, on the authority of M. Gros, a clergyman of
Geneva, "of the most unexceptionable character, and at
the same time a skilful physician and expert chemist."

" About the year 1650 an unknown Italian came to
Geneva and took lodgings at the sign of the Green Cross.
After remaining there a day or two, he requested De Luc,
the landlord, to procure him a man acquainted with Italian,
to accompany him through the town and point out those
things which deserved to be examined. De Luc was ac-
quainted with M. Gros, at that time about twenty years of
age, and a student in Geneva, and knowing his proficiency
in the Italian language, requested him to accompany the
stranger. To this proposition he willingly acceded, and
attended the Italian everywhere for the space of a fort-
night. The stranger now began to complain of want of
money, which alarmed M. Gros not a little, for at that
time he was very poor, and he became apprehensive, from
the tenor of the stranger's conversation, that he intended
to ask the loan of money from him. But instead of this,
the Italian asked him if he was acquainted with any gold-
smith, whose bellows and other utensils they might be
permitted to use, and who would not refuse to supply them
with the different articles requisite for a particular process
which he wanted to perform. M. Gros named a M. Bureau,
to whom the Italian immediately repaired. He readily
furnished crucibles, pure tin, quicksilver, and the other
things required by the Italian. The goldsmith left his
workshop, that the Italian might be under the less restraint,
leaving M. Gros, with one of his own workmen as an attend-
ant. The Italian put a quantity of tin into one crucible,
and a quantity of quicksilver into another. The tin was

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Online LibraryJohn PhinThe seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels → online text (page 6 of 12)