by Esther Inglis-Arkell
Hennig Brand discovered the element of phosphorus in 1669. That sounds like quite an achievement, but Brand’s life wasn’t one that should, necessarily, be emulated. His steps to discovering this element were undignified, to say the least. His first step was marrying well; he was an officer in the army, but his wife had enough money for him to leave. She didn’t have enough money overall — at least not according to Brand — and so he used what money she had to try to make more money.
Sadly, his chosen path for this increase in wealth was alchemy. He wanted to come up with the philosopher’s stone, which turned everyday elements into gold. At that stage, the science generally meant doing weird and dangerous things to any substance scientists could get their hands on. It wasn’t cheap, and Brand burned through all of his wife’s money. She didn’t have to live in poverty only because she was born in the 1600s, and so died young. Brand mourned for a time, and then went in search of another financially secure wife. Surprisingly, he got one.
As soon as he got his hands on her money, he started his experiments again. Alchemists tried anything, but they generally fixated on certain substances. Terribly rare and precious elements were popular, but so were human fluids. Humans were alchemical factories, turning ordinary substances like meat and grain into all kinds of things. The easiest thing to be got from the body was urine, and Brand, somehow, acquired a lot of it. About 1500 gallons of urine went into his experiment, but it paid off. After a complicated process of boiling and separating and recombining, he utterly failed to come up with gold. He did, however, come up with something he called “cold fire.” It glowed, perpetually, in the dark. It was what we now call phosphorus.
Although no direct use was found for cold fire in Brand’s life, people were fascinated with it. Brand capitalized on that — probably to his wife’s great relief. He sold the secret to anyone who would pay enough, including Wilhelm Leibniz, the inventor of calculus. The buyers sold the secret to others, but it remained valuable and well-kept until 1737, when someone sold it to the Academy of Science in Paris and it was published.
How do you get phosphorus from urine? Boil the urine until it’s a “syrup.” Heat the syrup until a red oil comes out of it. Grab that oil! Let the rest cool. The substance will cool into two parts, a black upper part and a grainy lower part. Scrape off the lower part and throw it away. Mix the oil back into the black upper part. Heat that for about 16 hours. The oil will come back out, followed by phosphorus fumes. Channel the phosphorus into water to cool it down. Voila.