In chemistry practicals, you mix chemicals in test tubes, grind them in mortars and boil them in retorts. Did you know that many of these common equipment and procedures were devised more than a thousand years ago by Jbir ibn Hayyn?
Transmutating Alchemy to Chemistry
In ibn Hayyn's time (AD721-817), practical chemistry was virtually unknown. Most alchemists were content to write books with wild and mystical formulas for converting one substance to another (called transmutation), or mixing up stuff to create magical potions! But no one bothered to try out these formulas for real.
That was till ibn Hayyn came along. Perhaps he really wanted to create these magical potions, because he tried out these formulas in his laboratory. In fact, he was one of the first people to even set up a laboratory. He also devised many kinds of scientific instruments to do all the boiling, grinding, distillation and other procedures. While he might have been disappointed that these formulas were false, he did discover arsenic, antimony, bismuth, tartaric acid, citric acid, acetic acid and most importantly, nitric acid.
But being practical, ibn Hayyn discovered many useful processes too, like preventing rust, refining steel, dyeing and waterproofing cloth and leather, and removing the green tinge from glass. And he found enough time among his experiments to write about a hundred books. He was so influential, that other alchemists gave up on wild theories and took to practical experiments, and thus the science of chemistry was born.
The first essential in chemistry is that thou shouldest perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery. - J?bir ibn Hayy?n
His life and career
Jbir ibn Hayyn was born in Tus, Persia in AD 721, to Hayyn al-Azd, an officer of the 'Abbasid family. The 'Abbasids being rivals to the ruling Umayyad dynasty, Hayyn feared for his son's safety. He sent Jbir to safety in South Arabia, which was lucky as Hayyn was executed shortly after. While growing up Jbir became a student of Ja'afar al-Sadiq, a respected Imam and scholar. Under him he studied alchemy, philosophy, pharmacy and many other subjects.
The 'Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in AD 748. Their ministers, the Barmakis were patrons of learning, and supported many scholars including Jbir. He lived much of his life at Kufa near Baghdad, doing his experiments.
Later he became one of the chief scientists at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad when it was built. In AD 803, the Barmakis fell out with the then ruler Harun Al-Rashid. Jbir ibn Hayyn was shifted back to Kufa and placed under house arrest. He continued his researches there till he died in AD 813.