Raimondo di Sangro reveals the origin of the salts involved in the fiery substance: human skull bones. But not a traditional chemical processing, of course.
The Prince di San Severo defines a philosophical candle, or Spirit, as a piece of matter processed with menstruums and presenting a perfect fixation of all the volatile parts, as keen to point. Then he calls “Soul” the candle’s flame. Despite all the assurances made to his interlocutor, here di Sangro is no more in the field of seventeenth-century science but already in the field of Alchemy. Although he plunges into the scientific culture of his time when asking for help with the phlogiston theory to explain the weird properties of his flame.
The issue is not only to understand whether our Mercurius Philosophorum can be used as an eternal candle and why that should be possible but also to figure out whether there is an affinity between our philosophical matter/candle, i.e., the Spirit and the plasma, which we call fire. The question is not trivial, firstly because we know of systems to attract Mercurius Universalis involving fire, and secondly because Raimondo di Sangro calls his flame “Soul”.
You can find the previous three letters at Raimondo di Sangro and the Philosophical Candle. Part 1.
A necessary clarification: Raimondo di Sangro uses the word “lume,” which in the Italian language of the eighteenth century was different from the latin “Lumen,” which instead determined a light rather than the device producing light. So we can imagine that for “lume”, he means the flame lighted on his “candle”.
In my previous letter, I promised to unveil the composition of my lantern. The matter accountable for this phenomenon are the bones of the noblest animal on the earth. The best are those of the head I have used, though I think every other animal’s bones can serve the same effect even without the same nobility as the first one.
Many other components will enter, but they are all passing by menstruums that don’t incorporate with the matter. And this matter is the real reason, no less than the flames we sometimes see in graveyards, battlefields after gruesome battles, or hovering the hanged heads exposed to the air. At the first opening of ancient graves, as some ignorant say of lit lanterns found in the dark, in fact, we always associate the idea of a lantern where there is a light. But the real reason is in the bones salts, which soon lighted on in contact with air, and the same soon died out because they were not enough purified, so that fire could only be volatile and momentary; on the other hand, you know that the best artificial phosphors are those from urine salts which are imbued indeed. Nevertheless, because these salts come from an excremental matter, they tend to be a phosphorous matter and never a real fire.
Those salts, which are part of us, are sometimes suitable to produce a momentary ignition, moreover when surrounded by greasy particles, and not fit for the purpose; this kind of matter causes those phenomena inside the ancient graves or battlefields, whereas these particles could be at the end free from polluted particles which instead prevent the action, in this case, the produced fire may be perpetual, in this third kind we can put my eternal lantern, which I had the honor to tell the history briefly.
I stop here to hear other opinions before going any further. For this purpose, I beg you to let me know of every observation made by people you have told about my experience.
Natural philosophers tend to investigate the effects rather than the causes. Now, I have drawn the scientific world’s attention with the first four letters of my chance discovery. First of all, one can ask if my “lume” was a real fire, a real igneous flame, or rather a phosphor. I can witness an ignition imparted by an external natural flame that can be communicated to another flame. The burning, smoking, moving, shaking, and elongating of the flame takes it to be considered a flame. The most astonishing thing is the long-lasting flame and the lack of minimum consumption of the matter. What must we deduce from that? Probably, it, once lighted on, receives nourishment from the surrounding air.
We know that our atmosphere is composed of tiny elementary and igneous particles; hence my matter could attract these particles; when closed off, it tends to die out and, always in closing condition, lean towards the slightest hole; it seems to run to get the needed nourishment.
Why, once extinguished, cannot it be lighted on again? We know pretty much every matter, when close to a flame, tends to catch fire, and this is because of the easy-to-ignite particles. Probably the matter of my philosophical candle does contain less easy-to-ignite particles than ordinary matter. It is prevented from light on unless it reaches the weight of 1/4 of an ounce less 27 grains. After the ignition, the matter seems able to attract many igneous particles from the atmosphere. The few igneous particles may be off after the first ignition. So, all the long-lasting ignition seems to rely on the draining from the surrounding air. It is easy to understand why my candle can be eternal. But it tends to be weaker than a regular flame strictly for a reason mentioned earlier: because the flame is not an inner flame.
Why does my flame tend to die out if bent at 45°? Because the particles composing the flame have a wedge shape for better penetrating the air, in the presence of an air current, it behaves like an ear of corn bent by the wind. The stem will always bend if the wind bends the ear to a certain extent.
The learned dame who persuaded me to write “Lettera Apologetica” asked me some questions: why did I keep using a wick in my experiments instead of directly light the matter? Why was I so sure it was not the wick to last so long instead of the matter? As I have previously said, my matter was a soft butter-like texture, and I needed the flame to be focused on a point, not spread on the whole surface.
I have planned to place two flames of my matter in San Severo chapel inside two crystal flasks of a thimble size, standing on two marble chandeliers. It is true that at first, I thought to make two candles of it since this is a candle substance, but I don’t want the visitors to put their hands on my matter. And now I come to the wick issue: I first thought of using an asbestos device, but then I decided to use a gold wick prepared according to the art.
The dame was satisfied with my answers and made another question: why the attraction and absorption of the surrounding igneous particles don’t make any visible change in your flame? I replied that probably, as the weight of the matter seems always due not to go under 1/4 of an ounce less 27 grains, there is intensity as proportionate as the matter weight. If I could have but hadn’t enough matter, doubled the weight, perhaps the flame would have been twice as luminous.
The said matter, which I first described as a yellowish soft butter-like texture, is now taking blood-red streaks on the surface. So that I begin to think that in this red color lies the power of these rare properties; probably only those streaks contain the igneous particles able to take fire and attract the elementary particles of the air. For instance, in his experimental physics, the very learned Peter Van Musschenbroeck tells us that having reduced a magnet in fine powder. After exposing it to fire, he got a tiny part of dark color, which seemed to have kept all the magnetic properties, while the more significant amount was revealed to be idle. In one of the remaining two little flasks, whose weight is 1/4 of an ounce and twelve grains, I noticed that the red portion is very abundant; in the other one, which is 1/4 of an ounce plus 48 grains, the red portion is so little to be barely visible. Now I think that only the red portion can be lighted on. I mean to test it.
The learned dame also said she failed to understand why the elementary fire, which is all the same nature, when reduced in flame, could cause the electric machine effects so different from my lamp matter. for instance, the first doesn’t burn hands and is very dim at sight, while the latter does all that occur in a normal flame.
I answered that there was no doubt about the elementary fire in the electric machine being the same as in my matter, but it is fair to say that, after the first ignition, we cannot compare the two matters. Both attract the elementary fire, this is true, but then they are different in purposes and effects too. Among magnets, the ones attract more than others. And the same for the hydraulic machines. So, I asked, what was the connection between a flame lighted on by the rotating of a globe and the matter of my lamp, which is different from any other ignited substance? Even if the flame of an electric machine gets to burn a hand, the more one rubs the glass globe and the more the globe’s diameter, so why be amazed by the usual flame effects of my matter? This was my answer, but now I begin to consider that I previously said that my matter continuously attracts elementary fire particles.
Meanwhile, it consumes all the few igniting particles in the form of red strikes. It was indeed just a conjecture to say that all the attractive properties of my lamp lie in those bloody red portions. Nevertheless, it may be that other less beautiful portions would act as attractive particles even if not able to take fire. Is it also true that I haven’t seen any red portion in my previous inert matter? So why do not suppose that in my matter, too, could lie the property seen in the amazing experiments of Young here in Naples with artificial magnets? After having, the said Englishman communicated the attractive virtue to an iron lamina. This one could attract a little iron ball. Then the latter could communicate the attractive property to a simile bullet, and so on till the number of fifteen bullets, which united, were able to hover over the iron lamina. So why not think that my matter may communicate, in the very moment of the final extinguishing, the same attracting virtue to another portion?
The dame made me another question: It has been observed that the flame tends to shake more when bent towards 45°, and eventually, at a 45° angle, it dies out, and I have said that was because of the column of air burden on the flame, but why this feature doesn’t show if one opens a hole in the lantern? I answer that the attraction to the hole was a natural and spontaneous movement of the flame and not forced, so the flame is not forced to undergo. Also, once the plug is removed, this action produces an upward force.
In my fourth letter, she also objected to a statement of mine about the salts inside the graves, which would tend to be momentarily lit on when lifting the gravestones. I said those should be intended as volatile fires as the salts were not so purified. And that was the difference of my matter, which never takes fire without being near a flame. My salts are indeed very purified. I compared my matter with the corpse’s salts to prove that my flame was firm and eternal. And between the matter of my candle and the corpse’s salts, there is another difference: the first ones are indeed not well purified and consequently badly fixed, so they are still filled with volatile substances. In contrast, the matter of my candle presents a perfect fixation of all the volatile parts and so needs the proximity of a flame to light on.
Last objection of the dame: how come I said that no matter was consumed while burning, and then I added that once it died out, it could not retake fire as all the ignited particles were gone? I answered that probably the weight of the active particles was so negligible that it could not be weighed. The red portion over my matter was a tiny portion of the whole matter. The learned Hermann Boerhave demonstrated that particles of every kind flow in the air, even from decomposing and fermenting matters, so why not suppose that the attractive particles in my candles, once consumed out, could not be replaced by these hovering particles? The Jesuit Beraud also demonstrated that calcined salts tend to increase in weight because they can absorb the particles in the air. For instance, the matter of my candles could absorb the particles emitted by Vesuvius.
These particles then fasten to the wick and produce fumes that the elementary fire cannot produce. I can remember that not only the weight of the candle doesn’t decrease as the flame goes on burning, but it even increases: the second little flask, indeed, once the flame was off, marked a greater weight of grain than starting to weigh.
I decided to reveal my discovery in correspondence because I wanted a chance to correct me as I went without contradicting. Suppose anyone was not convinced at all of my systems. In that case, that’s to say that the matter of my lamp does attract the elementary fire in the atmosphere and will serve to fuel its eternal flame; I’ll let him speak because one day, he will repent of his words. Then I will reveal a detail that will prove without doubt the foundation of my method and that, so far, I have been silent about keeping it for the future.
In the meantime, please continue to love me and be friendly despite the abuse I do of your admirable patience.