The alchemist who sought the Philosopher’s Stone and discovered phosphorus by chance

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus, by Joseph Wright of Derby / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The word serendipity comes from the oriental tale The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the protagonists saw their problems solved by a series of fortunate eventualities; it is defined as a valuable finding that occurs in an accidental or casual way. In science it has been something frequent and it is not necessary to remember cases like those of Fleming with the penicillin or the supervened use of the viagra (originally invented for hypertension). Today we are going to see another one in which an alchemist who was looking for the Philosopher’s Stone ended up finding a new chemical element, phosphorus. His name was Hennig Brand.

Almost nothing is known about Brand’s childhood and youth and his date of birth is approximate, calculated around 1630 in the state of Hamburg, which at that time was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Traditionally he is attributed a modest origin, having learned the skill of glassmaking. But the fact that his two marriages were with women of wealthy families makes it unlikely that he was born as humble as he claims, so he was probably upper class, although he came from a poor background and was impoverished.

In fact, and despite his youth, Brand entered the army as an officer -even if he was not superior- and participated in the conflict that bled Europe in that first half of the 17th century, the Thirty Years’ War, in which Spain and its Catholic allies, faced the rest of the powers that had joined forces for the occasion: Sweden, France, England, the United Provinces, etc. The conflict ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia and, after the troops were demobilized, Brand was left without a job, surviving thanks to his wife’s generous dowry. But that money gradually dried up and it was time to take up a job.

He thus began to trade in medicines and various chemical products, a subject that was not unknown to him thanks to his time in the glass workshop. This led him to become interested in the subject and to end up plunging into the stormy world of alchemy, which today we see as something rare and esoteric but which was then considered fully scientific, just as it was with astrology. And, of course, the dream of every alchemist was to find the Philosopher’s Stone, that mythical substance which, according to a very ancient tradition, had the property of transforming base metals (iron, copper, lead, nickel…) into precious ones (gold, silver).

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

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

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

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

John Frederick was a true patron who not only beautified Hanover monumentally but also appointed the famous philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz as his private advisor and commissioned him to form the Imperial Library. It was he who, in 1677, contacted Brand on behalf of the Duke, after he was enthusiastically told about him by another prominent alchemist named Johann Daniel Kraft. He was enthusiastic because Brand had discovered a new chemical element that allowed the generation of fire, which could be an evident proof of transmutation and, perhaps, a new way to obtain gold.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz portrayed by Bernhard Christoph Francke/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, in 1669 Brand was working on the search for the Philosopher’s Stone when the serendipity occurred and in a curious way. At that time it was thought that urine had special properties and so in antiquity it was used as a fertilizer, to tan leather and whiten clothes (remember the pecunia non olet of Vespasian to justify the tax on urine collection) and they even cleaned their teeth with it. Consequently, the alchemists used it and Brand combined it with many products, following the recipes he read in old books such as the 400 Auserlensene Chemische Process, although, of course, without obtaining any results.

But one day he got lucky. He had boiled his urine until he obtained a whitish, shiny substance from which he extracted a dry, black residue, separating it from the saline bottom and leaving it to rest for several months. He then heated it for several hours at high temperatures, and proceeded to distil it. As a result, an oil and a waxy flammable substance remained -in fact, a part of it was scattered in flames- which had to be cooled and solidified with water, although it was still luminescent. Brand first called it cold fire and then renamed it phosphorus, which in Greek means light bearer.

Today we know that oxygen atoms contained in phosphates of urine react with the other component of urine, carbon, when they become very hot, giving rise to carbon monoxide and allowing phosphorus atoms to be released in gaseous form, although this form can condense and become solid when it cools down. In essence, it is the same process that is used today industrially, only instead of urine, natural phosphates and coke are used. What Brand didn’t know was precisely how rich in phosphates that saline waste was, which would have allowed him to reduce the thousands of liters of urine he managed to handle.

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

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

Johannes Kunckel/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This was Johan Daniel Kraft, whom we previously mentioned in connection with Leibniz and the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. It was Kunckel himself who alerted him about the discovery, writing him a letter without imagining that his trust would be betrayed. Because Kraft went to Hamburg incognito and negotiated directly with Brand, buying the information about the process of obtaining the phosphorus and betraying both of them because he then sold it to several European courts, including that of the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, with Leibniz as an intermediary. Kunckel, outwitted, blamed Brand and went on to defame him, though he soon gave up to focus on his own research with the urine, as he had seen. He was successful, but in the end he gave up on continuing the experiments because, he said, he considered them too dangerous.

Others to whom Kraft showed the secret, with the idea of partnering with them and getting 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 Boyle-Mariotte’s Law (at a 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 phlogiston, according to which every combustible substance contains phlogiston and the process of burning consists of losing this phlogiston (a word that in Greek means “to make it burn”).

In fact, Becher had already seen a demonstration by Brand and had made him his own offer on behalf of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Güstrow but the other preferred Leibniz’s, which included a pension. Since the Duke died early and with him that pay, it turned out that Brand was the only one who had not benefited from his own discovery. Only the money of Margaretha, a rich widow with whom he remarried after the death of his first wife, allowed him to support himself.

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

However, although his method of manufacturing phosphorus spread throughout Europe (Robert Boyle had a monopoly in England while in France it was introduced 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 bones contained phosphorus, and later, when it was known that guano was also a good source; better than urine, therefore, for its production.


Los alquimistas de Felipe II (Javier Ruiz)/Bang to Eternity and Betwixt: Cosmos (John Hussey)/50 cosas que hay que saber sobre química (Hayley Birch)/Phosphorus (Michael A. Sommers)/The shocking history of phosphorus (John Emsley)/Wikipedia