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Sunday, 13 July 2014

Gold for free

Well, this is post 250, it seems, so it's time to revert to something a bit more closely related to my day job, which is writing. That, after all, is what I started my blog for.

As it happens, I have the signed contract for Not Your Usual Gold Stories from Five Mile Press, and I am doing last-minute intensive revision at the moment. These snippets won't be in the book, so I thought I might post them here. So they are bits of the gold book for free, but they happen to be about people who claimed they had a sure-fire way of getting free gold.
The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:
The sovereign Alchemist that in a trice
Life's leaden metal into Gold transmute.
Edward Fitzgerald, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, (5th edition) #59.
There are three effective ways of winning gold. You can find it, you can trade for it, or you can steal it. All of these are either hard or risky in some degree. There is another method which has attracted people: the use of alchemy to transmute base metals into gold. Over the years there has been a great deal of talk and perhaps even some hard work to this end, but if any alchemist ever succeeded in "making gold", there is no historical record of any success.

Some of the alchemists seem to have really believed that gold could be "made" by treating some cheaper metal in the right way. Modern chemistry tells us this is impossible, but they knew nothing of that. The honest men among the alchemists may have been thin upon the ground—but while they found victims, there were others who saw right through them

An Italian poet named Augurelli presented a work in hexameter to Pope Leo X in 1518. It was in hexameter and dealt with "Chrysopoeia," the true art of making gold. The canny pope is said to have made the poet a gift of an empty purse, as the possessor of the secret of the Philosopher's Stone lacked nothing but a purse, in which to store his artificially prepared metal.

Georgius Agricola knew all about the alchemists' tricks as well, and believed the crooks should be executed. More to the point, he described their methods, something like 470 years ago.
… these throw into a crucible a small piece of gold or silver hidden in a coal, and after mixing therewith fluxes which have the power of extracting it, pretend to be making gold from orpiment, or silver from tin and like substances.
— Agricola, De Re Metallica, preface xxix
Their game might have been easier than digging or stealing gold, but it could also carry risks. After he died, there were those who maintained that Alexander Seton had really succeeded in making gold, which probably just means he was cleverer at sleight-of-hand than his audience, though his history suggests that he wasn't all that clever.

His yarn was that a Dutch vessel was wrecked near his Scottish home in 1601, and he rescued the crew, put them up, and paid their passages back to the Netherlands. What follows is not trustworthy, but it is a widely believed popular myth.

In 1602, he visited one of the Dutchmen, and demonstrated his new-found skill of making gold. The Dutchmen told his neighbours, showing off the piece of gold that Seton had "made" for him, and the offers and enquiries came flowing in from scholars, and more to the point, from noblemen and monarchs.

Seton travelled around Europe, putting on a show where others under his instructions, placed lead in a crucible, with a powder, and found a mass of gold, equal to the lead. The gold was tested by assayers in Zurich, and declared to be the real thing.

The young Elector of Saxony, Christian II, invited Seton to call, but Seton dispatched another Scot, William Hamilton, who performed the same demonstration, with the same success. Christian issued an invitation that amounted to a command, so Seton presented himself.

This was a bad move, because when he did not reveal his secret, he was imprisoned and tortured with rack, fire and scourge, but still he refused to deliver the secret, claiming that such secrets were not for the profane. He was finally rescued by a Moravian chemist named Michael Sendivogius, who spirited the now weakened Scotsman to Cracow.

Realising that Seton was dying, Sendivogius also tried to get his secret, but the man died. Unabashed, Sendivogius married Seton's widow, in the hope that she knew the secret, but she did not. Still, he had Seton's treatise, which he published in his own name, and a supply of the wonderful powder, but when that ran out, that was the end of him.

Another (and more likely) version has him dying in a prison in Dresden in 1604. At least neither of them perished on golden or gilded gallows like Georg Honauer (W├╝rttemburg, c. 1597) or Count Ruggiero (Berlin, 1709).

James Price was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1777. He had a fortune from relatives, and gave his life over to chemical experiments. Then, in 1783, he repeatedly demonstrated the transmutation of mercury to silver and gold, using white and red powers. Assayers tested the gold, and declared it genuine.

The Royal Society expected Price to publish his method, but he refused. He also declined their invitation to repeat his experiments before the Society. The labour had weakened him, he said, but the President of the Society insisted that he perform, "for the honour of the society". He agreed, and so he came undone.

Even back then, the Royal Society had more than it share of subtle minds, and one of them spotted the false bottoms in Price's crucibles, which hid pellets of silver and gold. Caught out, Price drank "laurel water" (prussic or hydrocyanic acid) and died.

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