German chemist Hennig Brand (c. 1630–1710) identified phosphorus, or P on the periodic table of elements, in the late 1660s while attempting to concoct the mythical philosopher's stone. Little is known about Brand, whose experiments with a bodily fluid euphemistically known as the golden stream have been viewed as pivotal in the history of modern chemistry. Nonetheless, his work fascinated German philosopher and polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and other scientific pioneers of the 17th century.
There are scant biographical details concerning the life of Hennig Brand, whose name is sometimes spelled Brandt. Most sources presume he was a native of Hamburg, a northern German port city, and was born around 1630. As a young man, Brand was said to have served with one of the Protestant-aligned German armies that took part in the Thirty Years’ War, which laid waste to large parts of Europe from 1618 to 1648. His supposed rank as a junior officer leads historians to surmise that he came from a middle-class family. Brand was also familiar with the specialized glass vessels used in the quasi-science of alchemy, and this knowledge might have been gleaned during a standard apprenticeship to a glassblower.
Another clue that Brand came from a middle-class background is the reference to a dowry—a sum of money paid by the bride's family—which he received upon his marriage. He spent it freely in pursuit of his quest to concoct the elusive philosopher's stone, which purportedly could transform base metals such as lead and mercury into gold and silver. Since the dawn of recorded history, ambitious entrepreneurs and glib confidence-game schemers had attempted to formulate an elixir that would work magic on humble materials and effectively permit the holder to mint money.
Brand and his first wife had two children before she died. His second marriage was to Margaretha, probably a widow and the mother of a son who became Brand's assistant. She was also wealthy and financially supported his experiments. Their home was on Michaelisplatz, near the newly built landmark Lutheran cathedral of St. Michael's in the Neustadt quarter of Hamburg.
One apocryphal story states that Brand collected an enormous trove of fresh urine after an arrangement with a tavern keeper or beer-tent proprietor. It was an era in Western medicine in which there was scant knowledge of basic anatomical processes, including the method by which the digestive system collected, stored, and discharged necessary nutrients. Urine production was obviously related to fluid intake—but the golden hue of this secretion had long perplexed theorists, who imagined that it might contain a substance that had similar properties to gold. Brand was likely consulting a recipe from a standard text of alchemy, which suggested that silver might be conjured if saltpeter—technically, potassium nitrate, used in gunpowder—was heated with aluminum along with a concentrate of urine.
In his experiment, Brand used a common piece of laboratory equipment known as a retort, an orb with a downward-pointing spout that was used to distill liquids. When heat was applied to the vessel, the liquid inside was reduced to a purer, more concentrated form as the runoff escaped out of the spout. Retorts had once been made of copper, but by Brand's era transparent glass spheres were used by apothecaries and alchemists. He also worked with a small furnace, probably of the same type used by glassblowers. British science writer John Emsley literally wrote the book on Brand's invention, The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus, and imagined the scene in Brand's Hamburg workshop around 1669. After adding urine to the retort, Brand increased the temperature applied to it. “Glowing fumes filled the vessel and from the end of the retort dripped a shining liquid that burst into flames,” Emsley wrote about Brand's breakthrough. “Its pungent, garlic-like smell filled his chamber. When he caught the liquid in a glass vessel and stoppered it he saw that it solidified but continued to gleam with an eerie pale-green light and waves of flame seemed to lick its surface. Fascinated, he watched it more closely, expecting this curious cold fire to go out, but it continued to shine undiminished hour after hour.”
Brand believed he had created the elusive mineral known as the philosopher's stone. He managed to keep it a secret for roughly six years, until the first secondhand references to it begin appearing in scientific correspondence between various European figures. Initial reports tied it to a German scientist in royal service, Johann Daniel Crafft, who was a friend and business partner of one of the greatest minds of the era, philosopher and inventor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Crafft's effort to learn the exact process from Brand, however, was thwarted by another colleague and rival, Johann Kunckel, a chemist and apothecary who later claimed the discovery of phosphorus for himself. Kunckel had made important advances in mineral science and the establishment of the mining industry in this part of northern Germany, but his allegiance was to a different German ducal dynasty than the one underwriting Leibniz's and Crafft's work.
It was Kunckel whom Brand probably first interested in the waxy white substance he had distilled from urine. The chemist “wrote to Crafft about his intention to offer Brand money for his secret …,” explained Pamela H. Smith in her book The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire. “Crafft immediately went to Hamburg and promised Brand 200 Reichsthaler if he said nothing to Kunckel.” Smith further discovered that the hapless Brand was drawn into a diabolical machination between Crafft and Kunckel. “Not suspecting Crafft's preemption, Kunckel traveled to Hamburg and questioned Brand, but Brand claimed to be unable to reproduce his first success, and Kunckel was thus unable to learn Brand's process until later, when Brand came to him, claiming to be disgusted with Crafft and ready to offer his secret to a new buyer.”
With his hesitancy, Brand did not impress Kunckel, a deft courtier. As he later wrote, Brand had demanded to be called “Herr Doktor,” a professional title designating a university education in status-obsessed Germany. Any university degree holders of this era would have been fluent in Latin, and Kunckel quickly assessed Brand's lack of credentials by using terms from the universal language of science and the humanities in Europe. The cosmopolitan Kunckel described Brand as “a wrecked merchant who had applied himself to medicine,” as Smith reported in The Business of Alchemy.
Crafft apparently bought a trove of Brand's phosphorus and demonstrated it in several cities, including Hanover at the court of Johann Friedrich, duke of Brunswick-Lüneberg, who was a figure of enormous power and influence in late 17th-century Germany. Leibniz, as ducal historian, may have sent a representative to Hamburg or met personally with Brand to set up a mass-production facility for phosphorus.
Leibniz, Kunckel, and Becher were connected to figures in the British Isles who were eager to learn more about the curious substance Crafft had been showing in various European capitals. Foremost among those intrigued was Robert William Boyle, an Anglo-Irish scientist widely regarded as the founder of modern chemistry. Becher had decamped to London to work for Boyle, as had another entrepreneur-scientist from Saxony, Ambrose Godfrey-Hanckwitz, who likely met with Brand in Hamburg before leaving for England in 1680. In London, Becher and Godfrey—who later dropped the Hanckwitz half of his surname—helped Boyle perfect the phosphorus-manufacturing process. Godfrey later set up a phosphorus-supply business on Southampton Street in London's Covent Garden neighborhood. Historical documents show that this phosphorus-maker, Godfrey & Cooke, was located at the site of what is now Corpus Christi Church and that it remained in business until 1915.
Brand's death date is given as either 1692 or 1710. Decades after his death, in 1771, he was immortalized by English painter Joseph Wright of Derby, who commemorated great moments in scientific advancement that had spurred the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Derby placed Brand as the unnamed figure at the center of his painting “The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and Prays for the Successful Conclusion of His Operation.”
Ball, Philip, Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Emsley, John, The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus, Wiley, 2002.
Smith, Pamela H., The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, new edition, Princeton University Press, 2016.
New Scientist, June 30, 1977.❑