Difference Between Alchemy and Chemistry

Alchemy vs Chemistry

To explain the difference between alchemy and chemistry, we have to go back to the history of chemistry. It is simply because alchemy is the predecessor to modern chemistry. In the seventeenth century, both terms ‘alchemy’ and ‘Chemistry’ were used to name the study of matter by analysis, synthesis and transmutation. But, in the third decade of the eighteenth century, they began to use the word ‘alchemy’ for the attempts to transform base metals into gold. The development of modern chemistry started after the work performed by alchemists. This article focuses on main incidents in the era of ‘alchemy’ and in ‘modern chemistry’.

What is Alchemy?

There are several definitions for the word “Alchemy”. In the very beginning, alchemy was the term used for the ancient tradition of sacred chemistry. Some people say the root of alchemy is found in ancient Egypt and India; while there are also arguments that alchemy was practiced in China. However, it existed, practiced and developed over two millennia (from around 300 BC to 17th of 18th century AD).

Alchemy can be considered as a network, because it is a blend of religion, mythology, astrology, philosophy, magic, spirituality, folklore and others. The influence of Greek philosophers affected the development of the alchemy. In early days, they thought there are only four elements and those elements were considered as the building blocks of the universe. Those four elements were called as ‘roots’: water, fire, the air and the earth. They had the idea that these roots cannot split into smaller parts, but everything else except roots (water, fire, the earth and the air) could be broken into some combination of roots.

Difference Between Alchemy and Chemistry - History of Alchemy

It, the development of the Greek theories about the nature of matters and its changes, ended after the death of Aristotle. Early alchemists were very skillful artisans with metals. They used gold and silver to make vessels and ornaments for noble people and used cheap imitations or substitutes for poor people. They believed that they could transform base metals into gold very easily as they made substitutes. They did many chemical operations to change the colour of metals to resemble the colour of gold. In this process, they developed and improved chemical apparatus and learned many chemical reactions.

What is Chemistry?

“Chymistry” was the term used in the seventeenth century to describe the practical art of manipulating matter. The period from mid-19th century to present is considered as the period of “Modern Chemistry”. It was developed after the era of ‘alchemy’ to solve the problems that scientists were facing. There was a transition period during which Robert Boyle began his work on Chemistry and ended when Dalton developed his “atomic theory”. At the same time, an Italian chemist, Amedeo Avogadro invented Avogadro’s Law concerning molecules (number and volume) relation to temperature and pressure.

Mendeleev ’s work was the backbone of the modern Chemistry. There were around 60 known elements in the periodic table by the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1896, Henri Becquerel and the Curies discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity; the foundation of nuclear chemistry. In 1919, Ernest Rutherford discovered that elements could be transmutated. Rutherford’s work was the foundation for interpreting the structure of the atom. Soon after, Niels Bohr finalized the atomic theory.

Difference Between Alchemy and Chemistry - Modern Chemistry

Later, this led to many other developments in chemistry creating many distinct branches of chemistry. These branches include: biochemistry, nuclear chemistry, chemical engineering, and organic chemistry.

What is the difference between Alchemy and Chemistry?

• Alchemy is the predecessor to modern chemistry. Many discoveries by alchemist were later used in chemistry.

• Alchemy was based more on experimentation and had little basis in science. Chemistry utilizes both experimentation and scientific practices.

• Modern chemistry basically relies on scientific theories and experimental results, but the alchemy was a blend of myths, religion, magic, astrology, philosophy, and spirituality.

• Modern chemistry has so many practical applications, the era of alchemy can be considered as the beginning of this period.


Alchemy vs Chemistry

Alchemy and Chemistry are both related to practices in science during two different periods. The period of alchemy practiced for more than two millennia till the end of the 18th century when it was replaced by modern chemistry. Alchemy included understanding and acquiring knowledge on different kinds of matters through experiments and observations. Most of the alchemists’ studies based on Greek theories and concepts about the matter. Modern Chemistry is a science that provides knowledge to understand various chemical phenomena within our physical world.


Images Courtesy:

  1. Alchemy via Wikicommons (Public Domain)
  2. Solutions by Joe Sullivan (CC BY 2.0)