Chemical Heritage Foundation acquires 15th-century Alchemical Manuscripts

The Chemical Heritage Foundation has added a number of new items to its collections. In the fall of 2013 CHF made one of the largest and most important acquisitions in its thirty-year history: a collection of early alchemy manuscripts. Of the nine manuscripts in the collection, seven date to the fifteenth century, some as early as the 1430s. Among them is Petrus Bonus’s Pretiosa margarita novella (The Precious New Pearl), ca. 1450–1480—one of only six known complete copies of that work in existence. The collection also includes three framed illuminated miniatures of alchemical imagery from around 1450. Many important early alchemical authors are represented, including Johannes Rupescissa, Arnaldus of Villanova, Petrus Bonus, Pseudo-Llull, and Christophorus Parisiensis. Because of the extreme rarity of this kind of material, it would have been difficult to make the commitment to collect it one piece at a time. The acquisition of this collection as a whole launches CHF into the position of one of the leading collections of 15th-century alchemical manuscripts in North America. CHF was given the opportunity to acquire the collection in its entirety prior to it being sold publicly as separate lots by Les Enluminures, a gallery specializing in manuscripts and miniatures from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The manuscripts will be featured in a new exhibition at CHF, Books of Secrets: Writing and Reading Alchemy, opening on December 5 and closing on September 4, 2015. We have also obtained two more recent manuscripts worthy of mention. The first is a remarkable notebook from the laboratory of the noted chemist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778–1850) describing more than two hundred experiments between December 18, 1820 and October 8, 1825, largely in ink, a few in pencil, more than half of the pages in the hand of Gay-Lussac, the others being in the hand of unknown collaborators or assistants. This notebook is devoted to experiments on the solubility of salts, sulfates, and other compounds; fulminates of potassium, silver and mercury; potassium and other elements and hybrids; distillation of alcohols; tobacco; fermentation; sulfates of ammonia and copper; solubility of bicarbonate of potassium; and so on. Pages 179–180 contain six samples (really large smudges) obtained by desiccating ochre, kermes, and a precipitate of sulfur. The notebook is in very fine condition and a great example to help us understand laboratory practices in the early nineteenth century. A second manuscript acquisition was the Fabrication du Savon and Cahier de Distillations. Paris: 1826, in ink on paper, with three full-page illustrations, seventy-nine leaves, bound in original half green vellum. The first part is a partial transcription of d’Arcet, Pelletier, and Lelievre’s Rapport sur la fabrication des savons, 1795. There is a page in Spanish that concerns the use of barium carbonate in England, as related by M. Barruel. The second part seems to be lecture notes, the text being given in the first person. After a brief introduction on the principle of distillation, the text goes on to discuss aromatic waters, essential oils, spirituous liquors—with a large number of examples, concluding with preparations for the teeth. There follows a section on soap, pomades, powders, and a lengthy section on vinegars, with many examples and recipes both culinary and medical, including mustard. Next comes the making of plaster molds and plates, then fermentation and the means of taking off the alcohol from fermented liquors. This is followed by the three well-executed illustrations, each with accompanying explanatory text: they feature the apparatus of Gervais (notes in Spanish), Derosne (with whom the first person of the text seems to have been familiar), and Edouard Adam as simplified by Duportal, professor at Montpellier. There follows recipes for ten types of liqueurs, this section possibly in another hand. We have a great interest in early chemical technologies and industrial practices, so this was a welcome addition to our collections. CHF also purchased a collection of scholarly correspondence between the University of Chicago Physicist and Nobel Laureate Robert S. Mulliken and a former student Harrison Shull, Professor of Chemistry, University of Indiana. The letters capture much of the excitement abroad in the early 1950s when the fields of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry began to overlap and the calculation of molecular orbitals—a word invented by Mulliken— emerged as a potent analytical tool. The collection consists of 122 letters, written between 1922 and 1978. Most are typewritten and signed by either Mulliken or Shull. Letters from Linus Pauling, Charles Coulson and J.O. Hirschfelder are included. The Othmer Library’s archival collections grew tremendously this year and feature a couple of very important acquisitions including the Arvin Smith Collection. Arvin Smith was a co-founder of the Thermo Electron Corporation, which became a major provider of analytical instruments and services for a variety of disciplines and industries. The collection, mostly archival material, was in an office building and a storage locker near Dallas, Texas, and consists of 440 linear feet of unprocessed materials about Thermo Electron, its subsidiaries, and other companies it acquired. As one of the largest instrument companies, we believe that it will form an important resource for historians working on the impact of electronic instrumentation for the chemical, physical, and biological sciences. Also worthy of mention is the collection of the personal papers of Ernst Berl, an Austrian chemist who fled the Nazi regime and became a chemist at what is now Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. He made important advances in coal and gas synthesis which were extremely important for the US war effort. His papers were given to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, but due to their scientific content, the archives there felt that it made more sense to find a library with the expertise to process them. With the permission of the Berl family, the fourteen linear feet of papers were permanently transferred to CHF. Another donation was the collection of the personal papers of Richard W. Dodson, who joined the National Defense Research Council in 1940 to conduct chemical warfare research at Caltech and then became a Group Leader for the Manhattan Project and then Assistant Division Leader of the Chemistry Division at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Later he held important positions as the founding chairman of the Chemistry Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Secretary of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. We expect that his papers will add considerably to our understanding of the development of atomic energy in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Finally, we received a donation of “The Key of Alchemie,” a typed transcription of an unpublished manuscript on Alchemy, originally written in 1577. The transcription is hardbound in marble boards and consists of 108 pages of text comprising prefatory materials and a series of eight treatises concerning the Vegetable Stone, the Minerall Stone, the Animal Stone, the Manner of Fermentation, the Mixed Stone, the Transparent Stone, the Elixir of Life and the use thereof and the Rules of Multiplication and Projection. The manuscript is part of the Ashmolean manuscripts collection as Ashmole 1421. Of additional interest is the fact the original transcription was done by William Alexander Ayton, and Anglican clergyman and a ranking member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Our transcription is a copy of Ayton’s original transcription, made for his friend and fellow member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the occultist Frederick Leigh Gardner. CHF’s Museum collections acquired several items recently, mostly through donation but one item, a remarkable Carl Osterland Blowpipe Analysis Set from around 1870, we managed to purchase at auction from Christies in London in 2013. It is signed on the antique ivory assay scale, “Carl Osterland in Freiberg,” and is a Tennant-type blowpipe with accessories including: colored glass, sample minerals, pestles and mortars, ivory fleaglass, crucibles, scales, tripod stand and other items. The Museum also acquired through donation a number of historic molecular models at Caltech from the laboratory of Sten Samson who worked with intermetallic compounds and was a collaborator of Linus Pauling’s. This will be a valuable set of models for both exhibition and research. Finally, we should note that one of our archivists discovered this gem while cataloging the John Fenn Papers: Flugmaschine Wright is the first sales brochure for a Wright Brothers plane, published in 1909 after the company secured exclusive rights to manufacture Flyers in Germany. It is a small black-and-silver paper-covered pamphlet, 12 pages long, in German, and fully illustrated with six photographic images of the Wright Brothers airplane in flight. The machine was priced at 20,000 Marks with an additional 400 Marks needed to purchase the launching device. Flugmaschine Wright even predates the American Wright Company and the catalog is extremely rare; in addition to our copy, OCLC only lists copies at the Library of Congress and U.S. Air Force Academy.