Modernizing Alchemy

True, the alchemy of Gosplodey is based on medieval alchemy – the symbols, the equipment, the styling of the booth, the costuming – but it has to be accessible to modern people who want to simply enjoy watching it. It also has to be accessible to those who want to participate.

I, personally, think it’s fun to spend 2 years creating a vegetable stone and I understand the language and terminology used in alchemy. But MedFair is a totally different situation. The people there want to be entertained, amazed, and delighted in 15 minutes. That means it needs to be quick, flashy, intriguing enough to want the audience to want more, and most important – understandable.

Distillation and calcination are the most visually engaging processes of alchemy. The creation of pigments and fireworks the most exciting, so those are probably the best options for demonstrations. I just purchased a copy of Dennis Hauck’s “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Alchemy”. It arrived today. A quick glimpse through it doesn’t seem to be as simple and introductory as I wanted, but perhaps with it as the guide, I can craft something usable for MedFaire and put together a chapbook for the apprentice alchemist.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t planning on being ready before 2012! I thought, when this first started, that it would take that long to create stock and design the booth and sew the robes and all. While all of that will certainly take time, it’s the selection of suitable processes that will take the most time.

It is said that the qualities of a good alchemist are found in the person who can cook an egg perfectly. Common tools in alchemy can also be found in most kitchens: glass bowls and cookware (some people wondered why I was so very excited when Pyrex created the Visions cookware – now you know), plastic strainers, cheesecloth, wooden spoons, mortar and pestles, baking stones,scales, glass measuring devices, wine and beer bottles, and corks. Also common ingredients are used: dried herbs, baking powder, baking soda, yeast, salts, lard, vinegar, alcoholic spirits such as vodka, wine, or brandy, and cooking oil. Add fire and with these, we can make tinctures, essences, elixirs, and vegetable stones.

For pigments and fireworks, we’d need slightly more ingredients. Artist sites have better pigment recipes than modern alchemy texts, perhaps because the alchemical processes of making pigments has remained in the artist community while falling into disfavor among modern alchemists.

Making fireworks also falls under the “no longer interests modern alchemists” but was a fascinating part of medieval and Chinese alchemy.

Some of the experiments on this page could fit into an alchemy booth, and this page has links to more. Now to pore through all this material and select the ones that would fit the project the best.


Thought Work

With my hand still out of commission, I have plenty of time to think and do bits of research. I’ve also been communicating with scientist friends who have been thinking along similar lines in different fields of science. One’s a biologist, specifically an entomologist, and she recently started considering a science club for adults involving mostly insects – mantises are holding their appeal for her because as insects go, these are both intelligent and less fear or disgust inducing than many other insects, making them an excellent “first” bug.

Others are doing other things to get adults involved in “citizen scientist” type activities. It’s all very steampunky to me. I know Gosplodey’s is set in medieval times (because of MedFair), and I’m going to keep it there to start with because if I don’t keep it small and limited, it will get away from me, become too big to do and I’ll abandon it because it became overwhelming.

The trouble is, with all this time to think and very little ability to actually do right now, Gosplodey’s is taking on a tendency to swell up and expand across the ages. I can so clearly see how well this would fit in at SF conventions as a steampunk thing (the aforementioned “Mad Scientist”), and how well it would suit anime (the Chinese and Japanese both had alchemy, the Japanese is less well known: Renkinjutsushi or 錬金術師) as the work is very suitable to the concept. And alchemy is making a huge modern comeback (although mostly as spiritual and self-transformational philosophy). It spans the ages. And thinking about it is letting it get too big.

So, I’ve been desperately dialing it back down to just the Middle Ages, and just in Europe, because if I let that roam, it will grab the Middle East and Egypt and again grow too big.

Even keeping it just in the European Middle Ages is tough – there’s the charlatanry, the lead-into-gold aspects, the spagyrics, the fireworks, the endless distillations. Much of alchemy is actually spent waiting and observing as the materials tick along through this experiment or that. Distillation and rendering and such are lengthy processes. I should have remembered that.

Spagyrics, however, is comparatively fast. And creating explosives is also much faster than creating vegetable stones and elixirs.

To make a reasonable display and demonstration, we’d have to spend a lot of time bringing things up to the final moment, and then just showing that bit. We could talk of the work leading up to that moment. I wonder if the time-consuming aspects of alchemy might not be off-putting to most people?


I’ve been exploring the web to see on line resources there are for the endeavor. A lot of the sites were concerned with the philosophical and spiritual aspects of alchemy, there was a decent number of practical alchemy sites as well.

I’m pleased to see that modern alchemy takes advantage of modern materials and supplies.

Were I considering alchemy in a SF&F convention setting (a la “Mad Scientist”), I would gleefully use such things as 2 liter soda bottles, but Gosplodey’s is set at a Medieval Fair site and must make a serious attempt at looking medieval. No plastic soda bottles.

I have been collecting wine and beer bottles instead – and corks. It’s a pity I don’t drink very much, so I’ve asked friends to let me have their empties. As we head into the holiday season, I expect the pace to pick up some.

I’ve unearthed some of my old class notes and am translating them into English. There may be some useful things here.


Now that I’ve settled in to this new location, it’s time to get down to business.

I named this blog “gosplodey” for a reason – I intend to develop a hobby into a very small once a year public demonstration at an event called the OU Medieval Fair for the nefarious purposes of having fun, having something to do when I’m not working on the staff, and to share my interest with as many people as possible. I doubt I’ll make any money at it. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it will be a financial sinkhole – I have to purchase/rent a tent, acquire tables (I have 1, it’s a start), stills that are portable (I have 1 portable still – a start but not enough), other lab equipment, chemicals and bottles and jars and other such “consumables”, create signage, develop interesting patter, find some visually appealing and possibly mildly explosive experiments to patter on about, create costuming for myself and any assistants I can attract to help with this, find some way to reimburse said assistants – if only to feed them, and print up booklets and make little give-aways.

Yeah, it’s going to be a real money drain.

But it’s going to be fun!