The Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry

I mentioned some time back that I came across the works of the philosopher Stephanos of Alexandria.  In particular I discovered that he delivered nine discourses on alchemy, the last before the emperor Heraclius in the early 7th century.

Three of these discourses were translated into English before WW2 by a chap called Sherwood Taylor, who published them in Ambix, the journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry.  I suspected that more might exist in manuscript, so I located Taylor’s papers, and found a fourth discourse in draft among them.  This I sent to Peter Morris, editor of Ambix, with the suggestion that it might make a nice anniversary item.  He agreed but deputised it to someone called Jenny Rampling.  This was October 2009, since when I heard nothing.  I thought I’d prompt him, so emailed again this evening.

But this all prompted me to go and look at their website.  And … it’s like a glance into the 1980’s.  Every activity seems to be offline.  They look so much like a small band of people, with a very restricted interest, as fan groups  tend to be.  So every such group had to be, before 1995.  It’s not clear that they have moved on that much, tho.  The website is good, but everything points people offline.  They’ve digitised all the back-issues of Ambix — good, although probably not that hard to do — but made sure no-one can see them unless they pay.

I hope they start to reach out.  While I am not very interested in the history of chemistry, it is a pity that the ancient texts embedded in Ambix are not accessible more widely.

6 thoughts on “The Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry

  1. If you had read the site fully, you would have seen:
    “Back issues. The full run of back issues of the journal has now been digitised and will be available free on-line to members shortly.”
    Amazing value, as membership only costs £27. Compare that to the price of individual articles via the publisher (Maney) if you are not a member.
    I joined specifically to access Ambix for my (to be published) bibliography on alchemy.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    You will be pleased to hear that it just that section of the website and those words on it that impelled me to post! Something about it made my skin crawl. “Free on-line to members“, eh? — paying members, of course. Otherwise they’d have to submit to being ripped off, by the publishers they have selected to publish the journal. I quite agree that the members need to make stuff available to themselves. But … what about the great world beyond? (I do approve of the digitisation of the back-issues, of course).

    I find myself asking what is the point of a society like SHAC? Is it to promote knowledge of the subject, or to run a little club of specialists? Pre-internet, of course, the two were identical. But not now. This is where I have concerns.

    The site — and the bit you quoted — seems entirely inward-looking. And almost no-one is interested in the history of alchemy. But of those who are or might be, how much of what the society does is likely to help them unless they are already involved enough to buy subscriptions? In the age of open access that seems less than ideal.

    Now I know that there’s all sorts of practical issues about how societies like SHAC operate in this new world of the internet. I don’t have the answers to this, I have no programme to push. Small societies are really run by one or two enthusiasts, and I don’t wish to criticise or demotivate these. What Ambix does is worth doing. What is done so far is good. But … I feel that something more is needed, some attention to the wide world, to drawing in new people. Access is a large part of that.

    Incidentally, if you’re doing a bibliography perhaps you can answer a question I have. Is anyone working on the texts of the ancient and medieval Greek alchemists these days and translating them into English?

  3. Hello Roger,

    After spending many thousands of hours of time to research some fairly obscure points people have two options. They can make a tiny little bit of money by charging other people to access the results of the research, or they can give free access. If they wanted to make money they wouldn’t create a little society to research fairly obscure points so presumably they do it for non-financial reasons such as the love of the pursuit of knowledge and the sharing of acquired knowledge.
    Pay-to-view is counter-productive for obscure society newletters.

    A bigger worry though – what happens to these newsletters when the groups become moribund (as they usually do) if they are not archived somewhere and if archiving is hampered due to the pay-per-view mentality?

    Matthew Hamilton

  4. Your thoughts are mind (in both elements). The amounts of money made are usually minuscule; the loss of audience enormous.

    But … the problem that societies like this face is simply how to fund the societies, if membership confers no benefits. There are costs to publication, even if editorial costs. The sums may be small, but they need to exist. I have no good answer to that probem.

  5. Hello Roger

    I’ve no ideas as to how they may fund themselves but charging for access to newsletters is not likely to gather significant funds and makes obscure newsletters even more obscure.

    The charges are usually just enough to be annoying so unless you REALLY need access to the obscure newletter you are likely to access other material from whereever else you can source it, the material found in the newsletters is often pretty second rate as first rate material is usually published in well known journals (and this becomes a vicious cycle), and if you fail to cite an article found in a fairly unknown newlsetter it is unlikely your peers who have probably never read that newsletter anyway are going to criticise you.

    Matthew Hamilton

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