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Meissen Chymistry

Roald Hoffmann


Did it take an alchemist to make porcelain? Could a chemist of the time have done it? The question assumes a distinction between alchemy and chemistry that I believe did not exist in Böttger's day. People transformed matter—in metallurgy, in the making of medicines and cosmetics, in cooking, in dyeing fabrics—before there were ever chemists. And these wonderful protochemistries, as I like to call them, are one of many crafty threads into modern chemistry.

Another is alchemy, a unique cultural experiment, which adopted chemical change (as we now know it) as a symbol, a kind of logo, for its philosophy of transformation. Why chemistry? Because chemical transformation was at the same time familiar and spectacular. Imagine fire, or the smelting of ore. Imagine a brightly colored vat of indigo dye reduced by fermented urine to a muddy liquid, then resurrected in its blue glory by exposure to the air!

So the philosophy of change took on a chemical face. And then, I imagine, was co-opted by it. Alchemists became chemists. A strict distinction between the protochemists of the time and alchemists is an ex post facto simplification of a world of overlaps, which are beautifully exemplified by Böttger during his short life. In their convincing arguments for a lack of separation, historians William R. Newman of Indiana University and Lawrence M. Principe of Johns Hopkins suggest that the bridging word "chymistry" best describes alchemy and chemistry in the period.

I like the word. And yet, and yet, even as I imagine Böttger keeping careful laboratory notes of his formulae and protocols, I wonder if it could have been done without the underlying alchemical imperative. One could make stoneware and glass, use them in everyday life. But anyone who has held a fine Song or Koryo vessel in one’s hands, rotated it, followed the fine crackle, I think feels that porcelain is something more. It is sublime. To aspire to transform mere clay into that refined essence that catches light and begs to be held as no other ceramic does—that vision takes more than laboratory skill. The synthesis (I have to call it that) of porcelain demands faith in the possibility of transformation and a conviction that nature can be improved.

I think it took an alchemist. And the knowledgeable naturalist Tschirnhausen. And the forceful tyrant Augustus the Strong (no, please, there's no lesson here for contemporary granting agencies) to make this sublime, applied research work out.

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