Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579-1644)

excerpts from Ortus medicinae, Id est, initia physicae inavidita. Progressus medicinae novus, in morborum, ultionem, ad vitam longam ... (Amsterdam: Elzevir, 1648), translated by John Chandler (as Oriatricke, or Physick Refined, the common Errors therein Refuted..., London 1662, 1664) and reprinted in Henry M. Leicester & Herbert S. Klickstein, A Source Book in Chemistry, 1400-1900

I have said, that there are two primary Elements; the Air, and the Water; because they do not turn into each other: but, that the Earth is as it were born of water; because it may be reduced into water. But if water be changed into an Earthy Body, that happens by the force or virtue of the Seed, and so it hath then put off the simpleness of an Element. For a flint is of water, which is broken asunder into Sand. But surely, that Sand doth lesse resist in its reducing into water, than the Sand, which is the Virgin-Earth. Therefore the Sand of Marble, of a Gemme, or Flint, do disclose the presence of the Seed. But if the Virgin-Earth, may at length, by much labour be brought into water, and if it was in the beginning created as an Element; yet it seemes then to have come down to something that is more simple than it selfe; and therefore I have called those two, Primary ones. I have denied the fire to be an Element and Substance; but to be death in the hand of the Artificer, given for great uses. I say, an artificial Death for Arts, which the Almighty hath created; but not a natural one.


Moreover, every coal which is made of the co-melting of Sulphur and Salt (working among themselves in time of burning) although it be roasted even to its last day in a bright burning Furnace, the Vessel being shut, it is fired indeed; but there is true fire in the Vessel, no otherwise than in the coal not being shut up; yet nothing of it is wasted, it not being able to be consumed, through the hindering of its eflux. Therefore the live coal, and generally whatsoever bodies do not immediately depart into water, nor yet are fixed, do necessarily belch forth a wild spirit or breath. Suppose thou, that of 62 pounds of Oaken coal, one pound of ashes is composed: Therefore the 61 remaining pounds, are the wild spirit, which also being fired, cannot depart, the Vessel being shut.

I call this Spirit, unknown hitherto, by the new name of Gas, which can neither be contained by Vessels, nor reduced into a visible body, unless the seed being first extinguished. But Bodies do contain this Spirit, it is actually in those very bodies (for truly it could not be detained, yea the whole composed body should flie away at once) but it is a Spirit grown together, coagulated after the manner of a body, and is stirred up by an attained ferment, as in Wine, the juyce of unripe Grapes, bread, hydromel or water and Honey, &c. Or by a strange addition, as I shall sometime shew concerning Sal Armoniack: or at length, by some alterative disposition, such as is roasting in respect of an Apple: For the Grape is kept and dried, being unhurt; but its skin being once burst, and wounded, it straightway conceiveth a ferment of boyling up, and from hence the beginning of a transmutation. Therefore the Wines of Grapes, Apples, berries, Honey, and likewise flowers and leaves being once pounced, a ferment being snatched to them, they begin to boyle and be hot, whence ariseth a Gas; but from Raysins bruised, and used, for want of a ferment, a Gas is not presently granted.

The Gas of Wines, if it be constrained by much force within Hogsheads, makes Wines furious, mute, and hurtfull: Wherefore also, the Grape being abundantly eaten, hath many times bought forth a diseasie Gas. For truly the spirit of the ferment is much disturbed, and seeing it is disobedient to our digestion, it associates it selfe to the vitall spirit by force; yea, if anything be prepared to be expelled in manner of a Sweat, that thing, through the stubborn sharpness or soureness of the ferment, waxeth clotty, and brings forth notable troubles, torments, or wringings of the bowels, Fluxes, and the Bloudy-flux. I being sometimes in my young beginnings deluded by the authority of ignorant writers, have believed the Gas of Grapes to be the spirit of Wine in new Wine. But vain tryalls have taught me, that the Gas of Grapes and new Wine are in the way to Wine but not the spirit of Wine, for the juyce of Grapes differs from Wine no otherwise than the pulse of water and meal, do from Ale or Beer: For a fermentall disposition coming between both, disposeth the fore-going matter into the transmutation of it self, that thereby another Being may be made. For truly, I will at sometimes teach, that every formall transmutation doth presuppose a corruptive ferment. Other more refined Writers have thought, that Gas is a winde or air inclosed in things, which had flowen unto that generation, for an Elementary co-mixture: And so Paracelsus supposed, that the air doth invisibly lurk under the three other Elements, in every body; but in time onely, that the Air is visible: but his own unconstancy reproveth himself, because, seeing that he sheweth in many places else-where, that bodies are mixed of the three first things; but that the Elements are not Bodies, but the meer wombs of things.

But he observed not a two-fold Sulphur in Tin (and therefore is it lighter than other Mettalls:) whereof one only is co-agulable by reason of the strange or forreign property of its Salt, whereby Jupiter or Tin maketh every Mettall frangible or capable of breaking, and brickle, it being but a little defiled with its odour onely: but that the other Sulphur is Oily. For Gun-powder doth the most neerly express the History of Gas: For it consisteth of Salt-peter (which they rashly think to be the Nitre of the Antients, and the which is at this day plentifully brought to us, being dried up from the inundation of Nilus) of Sulphur, and a Coal, because they being joyned, if they are enflamed, there is not a Vessel in nature, which being close shut up, doth not burst by reason of the Gas. For if the Coal be kindled, the Vessel being shut, nothing of it perisheth: but the Sulphur, if (the Glasse being shut) it be sublimed, wholly ascends from the bottom, without the changing of its Species or kinde. Saltpeter also being melted in a shut Vessel, as to one part of it, gives a sharp Liquor that is watery; but as to the other part, it is changed into a fixed Alcali.

Therefore fire sends forth an Air, or rather a Gas, out of all of them singly, which else, if the air were within, it would send forth from the three things being connexed. Therefore those things being applied together, do mutually convert themselves into Gas, through destruction. But there is that un-sufferance of Sulphur and Salt-peter, not indeed by the wedlock of cold with hot, as of powerfull qualities (as is believed) but by reason of the un-cosufferable flowing of boyling Oil and Wine, no lesse than water; or of Copper and Tin, being melted with Wine. For in so great heat, when they co-touch each other throughout their least parts, they are either turned into a Gas, or do leap asunder.


But I have learned by this handicraft-operation, that all Vegetables do immediately, and materially proceed out of the Element of water onely. For I took an Earthen Vessel, in which I put 200 pounds of Earth that had been dried in a Furnace, which I moystened with Rain-water, and I implanted therein the Trunk or Stem of a Willow Tree, weighing five pounds; and at length, five years being finished, the Tree sprung from thence, did weigh 169 pounds, and about three ounces: But I moystened the Earthen Vessel with Rain-water or distilled water (alwayes when there was need) and it was large, and implanted into the Earth, and least the dust that flew about should be co-mingled with the Earth, I covered the lip or mouth of the Vessel, with an Iron-Plate covered with Tin, and easily passable with many holes. I computed not the weight of the leaves that fell off in the four Autumnes. At length, I again dried the Earth of the Vessel, and there were found the same 200 pounds, wanting about two ounces. Therefore 164 pounds of Wood, Barks, and Roots, arose out of water onely.