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Science and alchemy at the Swedish Board of Mines, 1680-1750

During the first half of the eighteenth century, the Swedish Board of Mines was an important center both for occultism, alchemy and scientific innovation.

It was the state institution that oversaw the country’s mining and metal export - at the time Sweden’s most important export industry.

The Board also held a responsibility for the improvement of the mining business. It had several employees who are still well known to historians. The famous spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg worked there, as well as several chemists of international renown. For example Georg Brandt and Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, the discoverers of cobalt (1730) and nickel (1751). The Board of Mines was a meeting place for individuals who held widely divergent views of what knowledge is, and of what it should be used for.

Eventually a new scientific ideal took hold at the Board. According to this ideal, knowledge should have a strong connection to practical mining and smelting, and should be based on the recent scientific theories that were deemed to be rational and sensible.

But the road to this position was hardly a straight one, and today, we know comparably little about the Board of Mines as an environment for early modern inquiry about nature. It may be one of the most important Swedish environments for science that, as yet, has not been studied by historians.

This project investigates mainly the alchemical and chemical pursuits taking place within the Board. But it also seeks to make a wider analysis of relationships between individuals and groups at the Board, with a special attention to processes of inclusion and exclusion of various groups with an interest in the mining business.

The following published papers (all by Hjalmar Fors) derive fully or in part from research conducted as a part of this project:

“Occult Traditions and Enlightened Science: The Swedish Board of Mines as an Intellectual Environment 1680-1760” i, L. Principe (red.) Chymists and chymistry: Studies in the history of alchemy and early modern chemistry (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications/USA, 2007) 239-52. In this article, I map out the different intellectual traditions that existed at the Board. In particular, I propose a preliminary explanation as to why key officials at the Board switched from an alchemy/chemistry articulated as a part of the paracelsian tradition, to a mechanical chemistry, that was theoretically inspired by Descartes and Newton.

”Kemi, paracelsism och mekanisk filosoi: Bergskollegium och Uppsala cirka 1680-1770” Lychnos 2007. The article discusses the emergence of chemistry as a discipline in Sweden as a consequence of an interplay between the Board of Mines and Uppsala univeristy. It investigates how a fruitful exchange of staff and ideas occured on several levels. About half of this article derives from research done in this project.

“Chemistry at the Swedish Board of Mines, 1700-1750” in, I. Malaquias, E. Homburg & M. E. Callapez (eds.) 5th international conference on history of chemistry ‘chemistry, technology and society’: Proceedings (Aveiro, 2006) 150-156. In the paper, I make an overview of the organizational structure of the Board, and I argue for its importance as an environment for scientific investigation during the period

Furthermore, a one-day symposium with the title ”The Board of Mines: A symposium at the Iron Office” has been organised in cooperation with the Iron Office (Jernkontoret). It took place in Stockholm the 27th of October, 2007.

This project is conducted by Ph.D. Hjalmar Fors.

Supported by the Swedish Science Council (Vetenskapsrådet).

Duration: February 2007 to january 2010.