The alchemist who was looking for the Philosopher’s Stone and discovered phosphorus by chance

The word serendipity, explains the RAE, is an anglicism whose original comes from the oriental tale The three princes of Serendip, in which the protagonists saw their problems solved by a series of fortunate eventualities; That’s why the academy defines it as a valuable find that occurs accidentally or by chance.

In science it has been something frequent and it is not necessary to remember cases like Fleming’s with penicillin or the sudden use of Viagra (originally invented for high blood pressure). Today we are going to see another in which an alchemist who was looking for the Philosopher’s Stone ended up finding a new chemical element, phosphorus. He was called Hennig Brand.

Almost nothing is known about Brand’s childhood and youth and his date of birth is approximate, being calculated around the year 1630 in the state of Hamburg, which at that time was part of the Holy Roman Empire. He is traditionally credited with a modest origin, having learned the trade of a glazier. But the fact that his two marriages were with women of more than well-off economy makes it unlikely that he was born as humble as is claimed, so he was probably upper class but run down and impoverished.

The squaring of the circle, alchemical symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone, in the work Atalanta fugiens (Michael Maiers)/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

In fact, and despite his youth, Brand entered the army as an officer -although he was not superior- and participated in the conflict that bled Europe in the first half of the 17th century, the Thirty Years’ War, in which Spain and its Catholic allies, faced the rest of the powers united for the occasion: Sweden, France, England, the United Provinces, etc.

The war ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia and, with the troops demobilized, Brand was left without a job, surviving thanks to his wife’s generous dowry. But that money was running out little by little and it was time to start a trade.

Thus, he began to deal in medicines and various chemical products, the latter subject that was not unknown to him thanks to his time in the glass workshop. This made him interested in the subject and ended up immersing himself in the stormy world of alchemy, which today we see as something rare and esoteric but which was then considered fully scientific, as happened with astrology. And, of course, the dream of every alchemist was to find the Philosopher’s Stone, that mythical substance that, according to ancient tradition, had the property of transforming base metals (iron, copper, lead, nickel…) into precious ones (gold, silver).

The Polish alchemist Michał Sędziwój, portrayed here by Jan Matejko, was in the service of Emperor Rudolf II and Duke Frederick of Württemberg/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The belief in the possibility of said transmutation, to which there were already references in the classics, was such that since the Middle Ages it became an obsession and stories arose that “confirmed” its discovery by Saint Albert the Great (who, in addition to being religious, was a scholar and an accomplished chemist), while Muslims developed a similar concept from the works of Jabir ibn Hayyan, with the skeptical exception of some authors such as Avicenna. That trend continued into the Modern Age and rare was the prince who did not have alchemists in his employ for the purpose of making gold.

In Spain, for example, Carlos I sponsored the famous Fioravanti and a certain Dr. Beltran provided him with several philosopher’s stones (his great-grandson, Felipe IV, was swindled a couple of times by selling them too), although it was his successor Felipe II who he turned to them time and again, in the case of Dr. Manresa de Murcia, Baltasar de Zamora, Francisco Ortiz, Tiberio de Roca, Diego de Santiago, Ricardo Estanihurst and several more. Well, Hennig Brand also worked for a notable: John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, regent of the Principalities of Calenberg and Hanover, and father of Wilhelmina Amalia, the future wife of Emperor Joseph I.

Juan Federico was quite a patron who not only embellished Hannover monumentally but also appointed the famous philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz as a private advisor and commissioned him to form the Imperial Library. It was he who, in 1677, contacted Brand on behalf of the duke, after being enthusiastically told about him by another prominent alchemist named Johann Daniel Kraft.

He was excited that Brand had discovered a new chemical element that could generate fire, which could be strong evidence of transmutation and perhaps a new route to gold.

Indeed, in 1669 Brand was working on the search for the Philosopher’s Stone when serendipity occurred and also in a curious way. In those times it was thought that urine had special properties and that is why in ancient times it was used as fertilizer, to tan leather and whiten clothes (remember the pecuniary non olet of Vespasian to justify the tax on the collection of urine) and even brushed their teeth with it. Consequently, alchemists used to use it and Brand combined it with many products, following the recipes he read in old books like the 400 Auserlensene Chemical Processalthough, of course, without obtaining any result.

Various types of phosphorus: waxy white, red (granulated and in large pieces) and violet / Image: Maksim on Wikimedia Commons

But one day the flute sounded. She had boiled urine until obtaining a whitish and shiny substance from which he extracted a dry black residue, separating it from the saline bottom and letting it settle for several months. She then heated it for several hours at high temperatures, then proceeded to distill it.

As a result, an oil and a flammable waxy substance remained – in fact, a part of it spread in flames – that had to be cooled and solidified with water, although it was still luminescent. Brand called her first cold Fire and later renamed it matchwhich in Greek means light bearer.

Today we know that the oxygen atoms contained in urine phosphates react with its other component, carbon, when they get very hot, giving rise to carbon monoxide and allowing phosphorus atoms to be released in gaseous form, although said form may condense and become solid on cooling. In essence, it is the same process that is used industrially today, only natural phosphates and coke are used instead of urine. What Brand did not know was precisely the richness in phosphates that saline waste had, which would have allowed him to reduce the thousands of liters of urine that he came to handle.

Initially, he did not publicize his success because he believed that phosphorus would lead to gold. However, he did not succeed and dedicated himself to making public demonstrations of obtaining cold fire. He immediately spread the word and one of those exhibitions was attended by Johannes Kunckel, another German glassmaker and alchemist who followed the same line of research. Kunckel, professor of chemistry, worked for John George II, Elector of Saxony, and met with Brand with the aim of buying the secret of his invention from him. But Brand had no supply of phosphorus at the time and the negotiation was delayed, allowing a third alchemist to enter the picture.

It was about Johan Daniel Kraft, whom we previously reviewed in relation to Leibniz and the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. It was Kunckel himself who put her on notice of the discovery, writing her a letter without imagining that her trust was going to be betrayed. Because Kraft appeared in Hamburg incognito and negotiated directly with Brand, buying from him the information on the process of obtaining the phosphorus and betraying one and the other because, later, he sold it to various European courts, including that of the Duke of Brunswick- Lüneburg, with Leibniz as intermediary. Kunckel, mocked, blamed Brand and proceeded to smear him, though he soon left him to focus on his own urine investigation, as he had seen. He was successful but in the end he gave up continuing the experiments, as he himself said, considering them too dangerous.

Others to whom Kraft showed the secret, with the idea of ​​associating with them and obtaining the coveted gold, were the alchemists Robert Boyle (naturalist, chemist, inventor, theologian…) who has gone down in history for being one of the enunciators of the Boyle-Mariotte Law (at constant temperature, the volume of a fixed mass of gas is inversely proportional to the pressure it exerts), and Johann Joachim Becher, who worked on the so-called theory of phlogistonaccording to which every combustible substance contains phlogiston and the burning process consists of gradually losing that phlogiston (word that in Greek means “to burn”).

Robert Boyle (portrayed by Johann Kenserboom) and Johann Joachim Becher (anonymous engraving)/Image 1: Wikiemdia Commons public domain – Image 2: Wikimedia Commons public domain

Actually, Becher had already seen a demonstration of Brand and had made his own offer on behalf of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Güstrow but the other preferred Leibniz’s, which included a pension.

Since in the end the duke died soon and with him that pay, it turned out that Brand was the only one who had not benefited from his own discovery. Only money from Margaretha, a wealthy widow with whom he married for the second time after the death of his first wife, allowed him to support himself.

However, although his method of manufacturing phosphorus spread throughout Europe (Robert Boyle had a monopoly in England while it was introduced in France by Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, the inventor of porcelain), it became obsolete exactly a century later, when the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, discovered that the bones contained phosphorus, and later, knowing that guano was also a good source; better than urine, therefore, for its production.


The alchemists of Philip II (Javier Ruiz)/Bang to Eternity and Betwixt: Cosmos (John Hussey)/50 things to know about chemistry (Hayley Birch)/Phosphorous (Michael A. Sommers)/The shocking history of phosphorus (John Emsley)/Wikipedia

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