Eric Flint's 1632 & Beyond: Alternate History Stories


Alchemical Distillation

Andrew Clark

[A Short Treatise of Spagyrical Preparations of Hope performed by way of Distillation, Being taken from a Study of the new American science wedded to the Proven Methods of the Ancient Chemists and in keeping with Christian Learning, Composed by Doctor Erasmus Faustus.]

Rejoice as at the break of day after a long and tedious night to see how this art of Alchemy begins to shine forth out of the clouds of reproach which it has for a long time undeservedly lain under and engender Hope to the people of our times. There is a glut of chemical books, but a scarcity of chemical truths. Nature and art afford a variety of spagyrical preparations and the American knowledge allows us to discover many without the three hundred years of trial and error. I can do no better service than to present some of these truths.

Of the creation of all things, matter exists by God’s wise and powerful will to produce things which are light, heavy, wet, dry, cold, hot, and otherwise endowed with form for God may be all in all. With a holy flood were a few saved from the taint of the rest of the world. With holy fire will the souls after death be purged of evil and thus will the dross be separated from that which it is alloyed.

We know the Lord can clean by destruction, whether that is flood or fire. Either in flood, the antapokatastasis in Capricorn, or fire, the apokatastasis in Cancer, we have methods to transform matter ourselves. But too easily have we assumed the transformative processes would not work together. See that Fire and Flood are not Exclusive, but may be combined as in the Art of Distillation.

Distillation is the long known art of extracting the humid part of things by virtue of heat and being first resolved into a vapor and then condensed again by cold, but among the wide details of distillation, allow me to examine two. First is stratification, the separation of vapors prior to precipitation. Second is calcination, the reduction of a solid although humid mass into a calx while collecting the vapor.

Although we practice stratification, little has been heeded of the precision allowed. From the same process that allows us to extract the Spirit of Wine to yield Brandy, we can separate the spirit of many other fluids. Care to the heat applied to the menstruum will drive the most volatile spirit first while restraining the phlegm. Instruments can be used to measure the exact heat of the solution. Even the greatest dullard will understand how the color of iron in flame can be used to measure the heat of a preparation over fire. Such it is that we may stratify products at different heats, allowing in some cases a single distillation where multiple passes of rectification might have been required in the past.

By stratification we extract the spirit of vinegar, or acetic acid as the Americans say, from common wine vinegar. As Nicholas Flamel has taught us to employ spirit of vinegar as a solvent in many vegetable tinctures, we also should know it is also a fungicide and explore it as a product itself. The American texts imply it can also be used to make glues and paints.

Production of one particular subsequent potion using spirit of vinegar has immediate applications. Slowly add chalk to spirit of vinegar just until saturation, then dry and crystallize the resulting “Salt of Spirit of Vinegar” or “Sodium Acetate”. Next slowly add oil of vitriol. Allow to cool and separate the liquid. The collected crystals are a form of the original spirit of vinegar, but with additional water removed in this most curious fashion. This “waterless spirit of vinegar” is called “acetic anhydride” by the Americans and the crystals desperately desire to react with water. They should be sealed away. The pulverized form is a potent weed killer and easily burns skin. It has been suggested the violence with which these crystals can desire water is employed by the Americans to make explosives.

Calcination has long been employed to extract interesting fluids from a solid. Large quantities of pine tar are produced in Sweden by calcination. By applying this process to the bark of the common birch, also known as the Black Birch, we can produce birch tar. Be aware this is different from the tar resulting from Silver Birch or White Birch and different yet again from the tar of the American’s Canoe Birch.

Another pass of simple distillation of wood tar will separate the volatile Oil of Tar, or turpentine, from the Resina Nigra, or pitch. The Oil of Birch, or oleum betula, has a peculiar penetrating yet pleasing odor and can be used as a flavoring agent if used in small quantities. Americans confirm the Oil of Birch as the concentrated active component of willow bark used in so many healing potions. Birch tar yields less product, but a much purer form than willow tar however as the willow bark contains many other undesired elements that pollute the oleum salix. Starting with birch bark and twigs, we can easily generate large quantities of oleum betula, or methyl salicylate as the Americans call it. They also warn that while the concentrated nature has healing properties, it is very irritating to the skin and too much will kill. They suggest a different preparation.

Take then into a glass vessel, one part caustic soda and into this add one part Oil of Birch. Observe that a white gum is formed. Wash then this gum with settled water before scraping. Of this white gum then with an equal part add waterless spirit of vinegar and a half part oil of vitriol. Immerse the vessel in a bath of boiling water for a short time. Remove to cool and allow crystals to form, but first you may mix an addition of a little water to hasten the cooling. After which time you will add enough hot water to just dissolve these crystals. Repeat the operation to cool and see that crystals reform. Remove these white crystals and allow to dry overnight.

The white powder resulting from pulverizing these crystals is a most potent and secret pain relief as revealed by the Americans. They call it Aspirin or maybe Esperan, from the hope it offers. Besides drinking potions with this Esperan, poultices can be made and directly applied to aches of the body.

Arise, O Sun of truth and hope, and dispel the fogs and mists of ignorance and suspicion, that the Queen of arts may triumph in splendor! I desire not to be mistaken as if I did deny Galen his due, or Hippocrates what is his right for, indeed, they wrote excellently in many things, and deserve well thereby. That which I cannot allow of is assumption that only these ancients held genius and that the men of today and tomorrow have nothing to contribute.

As the Lord told Matthew, “Seek and ye shall find” and note well the words of Saint Paul, “Attend to reading, Timothy, my son.” Mysteries may be hidden, but God desires us to search them out. It must therefore be possible to determine truth through such a search and long have we been on this quest. Our faith and knowledge show us Hope.


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