Isaac Newton, like Albert Einstein, is a quintessential symbol of the human intellect and its ability to decode the secrets of nature. Newton's fundamental contributions to science include the quantification of gravitational attraction, the discovery that white light is actually a mixture of immutable spectral colors, and the formulation of the calculus. Yet there is another, more mysterious side to Newton that is imperfectly known, a realm of activity that spanned some thirty years of his life, although he kept it largely hidden from his contemporaries and colleagues. We refer to Newton's involvement in the discipline of alchemy, or as it was often called in seventeenth-century England, "chymistry." Newton wrote and transcribed about a million words on the subject of alchemy. Newton's alchemical manuscripts include a rich and diverse set of document types, including laboratory notebooks, indices of alchemical substances, and Newton's transcriptions from other sources.
Newton describes the production of the spirit of salt (hydrochloric acid) in Don b. 15, p.8v, as follows: "Spirit of Salt. Common salt, beat fine in 1 part brick-dust or potters earth not over dryed & pouder 5 parts : urge by a graduall fire out of a glass retort filld full into a large receiver till you feel the receiver cold & one pound will yeild nine or 10 ounces."
In Newton's day, a silica garden was usually made by placing lumps of ferric chloride in a solution of potassium silicate. Silica gardens encouraged the idea that minerals were vegetative. See videos demonstrating this process and five other reactions that shaped the thinking of early modern chymists on our Multimedia Lab page.