Home  »  Volume XIV: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part Two The Nineteenth Century, III  »  § 16. The study of material changes

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VIII. The Literature of Science

§ 16. The study of material changes

Chemistry has always busied itself with the changes of material things. By working in metals and precious stones, by making colours, by producing things used by artists to give delight to themselves and others, by fashioning natural materials into things useful to men, by concocting potions which had strange effects on the bodies and minds of those who swallowed them, by doing these things and things like these, chemists slowly amassed much knowledge, knowledge, however, which was fragmentary and disconnected. The strange changes which chemists discovered impelled the more ardent and adventurous among them to dream of the possibility of finding a universal medicine which should put an end to disease and suffering and enable the adept to bring all imperfect things to a state of perfection. The history of alchemy is the history of a particular branch of the universal quest, the quest of the unchanging.

In the later years of the eighteenth century, between 1770 and 1790, chemistry passed, at a bound, from being an empirical art to becoming a science. The man who made the great transformation was Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. With the work of the master we are not concerned here.