CHAPTER XIII. THE CHEMICAL ELEMENTS CONTRASTED WITH THE ALCHEMICAL PRINCIPLES.

It was known to many observers in the later years of the 17th century that the product of the calcination of a metal weighs more than the metal; but it was still possible, at that time, to assert that this fact is of no importance to one who is seeking to give an accurate description of the process of calcination. Weight, which measures mass or quantity of substance, was thought of, in these days, as a property like colour, taste, or smell, a property which was sometimes decreased, and sometimes increased, by adding one substance to another. Students of natural occurrences were, however, feeling their way towards the recognition of some property of substances which did not change in the haphazard way wherein most properties seemed to alter. Lavoisier reached this property at one bound. By his experimental investigations, he taught that, however greatly the properties of one substance may be masked, or altered, by adding another substance to it, yet the property we call mass, and measure by weight, is not affected by these changes; for Lavoisier showed, that the mass of the product of the union of two substances is always exactly the sum of the masses of these two substances, and the sum of the masses of the substances whereinto one substance is divided is always exactly equal to that mass of the substance which is divided.

For the undefined, ever-changing, protean essence, or soul, of a thing which the alchemists thought of as hidden by wrappings of properties, the exact investigations of Lavoisier, and those of others who worked on the same lines as he, substituted this definite, fixed, unmodifiable property of mass. Lavoisier, and those who followed in his footsteps, also did away with the alchemical notion of the existence of an essential substratum, independent of changes in those properties of a substance which can be observed by the senses. For the experimental researches of these men obliged naturalists to recognise, that a change in the properties of a definite, homogeneous substance, such as pure water, pure chalk, or pure sulphur, is accompanied (or, as we generally say, is caused) by the formation of a new substance or substances; and this formation, this apparent creation, of new material, is effected, either by the addition of something to the original substance, or by the separation of it into portions which are unlike it, and unlike one another. If the change is a combination, or coalescence, of two things into one, then the mass, and hence the weight, of the product is equal to the sum of those masses, and hence those weights, of the things which have united to form it; if the change is a separation of one distinct substance into several substances, then the sum of the masses, and hence the weights, of the products is equal to that mass, and hence that weight, of the substance which has been separated.