What's an Alembic? Alchemy, the History of Science, & Our Logo

One of the most exciting parts of starting a business is choosing your name, and as a science specialist I wanted one that would be evocative of the history of science, as well as broader concepts of discovery and knowledge. For a long time I’ve been interested in alchemy and its evolving place in the history of science, so an alchemical symbol seemed apt. And what better than the apparatus at the centre of so much alchemical, medical, and scientific work - the alembic?

Alembics are apparatuses used to distill, or separate and purify, substances. They are often made of glass to enable observation, but can also be ceramic or copper, and they have two parts. The bottom sits over a heat source and contains the substance to be distilled, and at the top is a bulb with a tube sloping down and out (often these two are joined and are called a retort, but if they are separate pieces they are referred to as the cucurbit and the alembic, respectively). (Below, an 18th-century retort at the Corning Museum of Glass.)

 

When heat is applied the substance inside begins boiling, and its vapours rise and flow through the tube. Away from the heat source they cool down again and condense, and are collected in a receiving vessel at the base of the spout (sometimes this vessel or the spout is cooled in water to encourage condensation). Because different substances have different boiling points, they can be separated from each other by carefully controlling the amount of heat used.

Alembics are a very old technology, in use in the Middle East since late antiquity. The name derives from the Arabic al-anbīq, and knowledge of them was part of the great transfer of scientific learning from the Arab world to Europe during the Middle Ages. In addition to alchemy and medicine, alembics were used by medieval and early modern women to distill medicines, flavors, scents, and liquors for the home. Today distillation is still an important scientific technique, and devices similar to alembics can be found in chemistry labs, like this one operating at the National Physical Laboratory during their 2014 open day.

The alembic in our logo logo is taken from a woodcut in the 1544 edition of Coelum philosophorum by Philipp Ulstad, a physician from Nuremberg. (The image was very kindly provided by the University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.)

Ulstad's title translates as The Heaven of Philosophers, and it was an important practical work on distillation. While many alchemists couched their prose in symbolism to protect their secrets and deter the uninitiated, Ulstad was interested in making knowledge of distillation more accessible to doctors and apothecaries, and he included recipes for a variety of medicinal substances, including some using gold.

(Below, an 18th-century alembic from the Corning Museum of Glass.)

While alchemy is not what we would consider a scientific discipline today, it was more like one than many people realise. As science professionalised during the late 18th century its practitioners tried to separate themselves in the public eye from alchemy, depicting it as wasteful, fraudulent, or heretical. Later, Victorian and early 20th-century writers emphasised the spiritual aspects of alchemy. These interpretations - alchemy as either a mysterious quest for enlightenment or a sophisticated scam - filtered into the public consciousness.

But in recent decades historians have learned that alchemy was more like a craft alongside metalworking and the production of glass and ceramics, and, indeed, contributed significantly to those and other technical endeavours. Alchemists, though operating without the rigid theoretical framework that defines modern science, actively investigated the natural world and participated in the production of knowledge. Some of them asked profound questions about the nature of matter and how one substance could become another through burning, putrefaction, and digestion, and their work contributed significantly to the development of chemistry as a professional science in the 18th century.

The alembic, then, represents the concept of purification, of seeking the essence of nature, knowledge, and life. But it also reflects the history of science as a flawed, meandering, and deeply human quest to understand the world. This makes it a very compelling symbol for someone who firmly believes in the power of science but is also fascinated by the complexity of its history and the narratives surrounding it.

  • To learn more about alchemy I strongly recommend The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence Principe, one of the historians who has led the way in this field. It’s scholarly but also accessible to the general reader, and has an extensive bibliography for those who want to extend their reading. Principe is a practising chemist, and he’s dramatically improved our knowledge of alchemy by reproducing recipes himself. Here’s a great video introducing his work.
  • When I was working on the logo the only online copy of the Ulstad image was with a photo firm asking for a £700 licensing fee (quite a scam for a work in the public domain!) But not to worry - academic twitter came to my rescue, and special collections librarian Robert MacLean of the University of Glasgow connected me with the right people to speak to about their copy. A few days later I had a high-res version and the rights to use it as my logo, and my husband did the graphic design work to complete it.
  • The small round symbol in our logo, which also appears in your browser as our favicon, is the alchemical symbol for salt.
  • You might also be interested in browsing our stock of books on the history and philosophy of science, or our rare books on chemistry and physics.

Laura Massey
Laura Massey

Author

Alembic founder Laura Massey holds a bachelor's degree in the history of science from Georgia Tech and a master's in book history (focusing on medieval and early modern scientific and medical books,) from the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a cataloguer, bookseller, and blogger in libraries and bookshops in the United States and Britain.



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