Big History Project
Whether an individual or a collection of people, Jābir Ibn Ḥayyān’s work with chemical substances was an inspiration and guide for the later creators of chemistry.
Pure Metal: Jābir Ibn Ḥayyān
By Trevor R. Getz
Whether an individual or a collection of people, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān’s work with chemical substances was an inspiration and guide for the later creators of chemistry.
The original transformer
Whether you realize it or not, you wake up every morning and do some chemistry. You might turn the liquids in your eggs into solids. Maybe you remove the moisture inside your bread to make toast. Meanwhile, your parents may be adding hot water to ground-up beans to create new and complex compounds that taste good and give them a caffeine buzz. Chemistry is everywhere.
Chemistry is the modern science that deals with the structure and properties of substances and how they are transformed. But modern chemistry didn’t just happen. It grew out of a long history of curious humans who used trial and error to answer questions like:
- How do you make raw foods edible?
- How do you turn ash and fat into soap?
- How do you turn mineral-bearing rocks into iron?
Most trials ended in error, but when they succeeded, people passed on the ideas to later generations, which helped expand our collective learning. But these ideas weren’t always studied in a scientific way. Between the days of trial and error and the arrival of modern science was something called alchemy. Not exactly science, and not exactly magic, alchemy mixes religion, spirituality, and experimentation in order to study the properties of natural substances, especially metals.
Perhaps the greatest of the alchemists was Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, a Muslim Persian innovator who wrote over 3,000 texts on alchemy. These included:
- A list—including descriptions—of all the known tools and equipment used by Greek and Muslim alchemists
- Histories of the progress made by earlier alchemists
- Perhaps most important, studies of the characteristics of different metals
You see, ibn Ḥayyān was one of the first people to describe the qualities of different metals, and he had a good reason for doing so. Alchemists wanted to know how you might transform one metal into another. Well, what they really wanted to do was to turn lead, a cheap metal, into gold, an expensive metal. The way to pursue that challenge was to study the qualities of each metal. Then they had to figure out the process by which you might change those qualities.
In what may be his most important contribution to later scientists, ibn Ḥayyān began to study how mixing substances—using heat, acid, and other methods and tools—could change them. These processes included:
- Distillation – Purifying something by boiling it and then capturing the steam.
- Filtration – Putting a substance through a filter to remove impurities.
- Amalgamation – Mixing two substances together so they become a new substance.
In the process of his work with metals, ibn Ḥayyān learned how to purify gold and mercury. He also isolated substances that could be used to transform other metals, including sulfuric acid and nitric acid.
A man? Or a school?
Who was this brilliant man who wrote 3,000 texts and invented new ways to transform substances? It’s still a mystery. There probably was a man named Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. He was probably born in the city of Tus, in Persia. He probably worked for the Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid. And he probably wrote some of the 3,000 texts associated with his name. But it’s likely that a lot of the work that people attach his name to was written by other people living around the same time or later.
So, if that’s true, we’re looking at something much more exciting than a single innovator. We’re probably looking at a whole school of alchemists. Many of them were probably students of ibn Ḥayyān’s, working together, sharing notes and ideas, and passing them on. If the 3,000 texts were written by several or many people, then we have evidence of a great effort to understand metals and other substances and transform them. Maybe they all worked together in a laboratory, or workshop. Maybe there was even a whole school of alchemists in one location!
From Jābir to Geber to....
And, if it were a school, what an important school it was! The work of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān spread across the Islamic world and was preserved for later researchers—and there’s no “maybe” about that. This work was highly influential. The ibn Ḥayyān texts were translated into Latin, and by the twelfth century, they were found in Spain, Italy, and England. One group of fourteenth-century Spanish experimenters even signed their own work “Geber” to honor the influence of “Jābir.” Later, Sir Isaac Newton studied ibn Ḥayyān, and in his own studies on the nature of matter, he reproduced some of these earlier experiments.
Ibn Ḥayyān’s work looked quite different from the work of modern scientists. Yet, like many great innovators before the modern period, ibn Ḥayyān helped pave the way for later scholars who used the scientific method. His work featured many methods that later scientists would adopt. These include some of the first attempts to create a list of qualities that compare one metal to another. He also invented both new tools and new liquids in his ambition to transform one substance into another. Finally, he recorded everything very carefully. Whether he was one man, or a whole school or laboratory of scientists, ibn Ḥayyān represents an important step between the trial and error of everyday work and the carefully recorded and studied science of chemistry.
Trevor Getz is a professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written 11 books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.
Want to join the conversation?
- He was born around 721 CE to about 815 CE. Amazing!
Would it be correct to also mention a woman named Tapputi-Belatekallim, a parfume-maker from around 1200 BCE Mesopotamia, as one of the first chemist?(1 vote)