Today, we meet the last alchemist. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
By 1600 two forces rode a
collision course. People like Galileo and Francis
Bacon were just shaping modern experimental
science. At the same time, medieval alchemy
struggled to cope with all the change. In the
century before, the alchemist Paracelsus had tried to change
alchemical thinking from within.
But he still spoke the old language of magic and
mysticism. Modern science needed a new language and
new people. It needed people with clear eyes, ready
to receive nature as it presented itself. The human
imagination had to touch the hard earth for a
season if we were to move ahead.
So, while we struggled to set up the Plymouth
Colony in America, the last alchemists fought a
losing battle in England. The most evident of these
was Robert Fludd.
Fludd was as bombastic and difficult as Paracelsus
had been before him. He was also the most rigid
kind of fundamentalist. Since Aristotle was a
pagan, everything he'd ever written was wrong.
Plato had at least read the old Mosaic Bible texts.
Maybe he had a little to say to us.
Fludd's claims about physical reality run an
amazing gamut from crazy to insightful. Lightning,
for example, was simply not to be understood in
physical terms. It was the naked will of God.
That's why it struck the people who didn't run and
hide when they saw it.
But he also believed the sun -- not the earth --
was at the center of the universe. He said that our
blood carries the lifegiving parts of air through
our body in a circular motion. That was very close
to the modern theory of blood circulation. Harvey
gave us that theory only a few years later, and
Harvey was Fludd's close friend.
Fludd proposed one of the famous perpetual motion
machines. It worked like this: A water wheel grinds
grain, and it pumps the water back into its own
supply tank. If such a thing could work, you could
lock the whole business in a room and it'd grind
grain forever. You wouldn't need a stream.
Fludd was Europe's best known scientist in his
time. When his ideas finally fell, it was because
he didn't protect himself from the lightning bolts
of change. Every 17th-century scientist we know
about today took time out to attack Fludd's ideas.
He was the lightning rod that called the new
science down on alchemy. When he died in 1637,
alchemy died with him.
And in that odd way, Robert Fludd did as much as
anyone to bring modern science into being.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Huffman, W.H., Robert Fludd and the End of the
Renaissance. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Yates, F.A., Theatre of the World.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Boorstin, D.J., The Discoverers. New
York: Random House, 1983.
Debus, A.G., The English Paracelsians.
New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1966, Chapter 3.
For more on alchemy see Episodes 76, 293,
and especially 474, which
deals with Fludd's precursor, John Dee. For more on
Paracelcus in particular, see Episodes 511 and 610.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, University of Kentucky Library
A late 17th century version of Fludd's perpetual
motion machine grinding grain as shown in
Böckler's Theatre of New Machines
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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