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Hennig Brand's 'Recipe'

  1. Leave 50 buckets of urine outside in to open air for two weeks until maggot-ridden.1

  2. Boil the urine (with the maggots) to evaporate liquid until a back, sticky residue remains that has the consistency of honey.

  3. Leave this black residue for several months.

  4. Mix and heat until a red oil forms on the surface.

  5. Remove the red oil and keep separate.

  6. Leave the residue in a cellar until it separates into a top layer of black, spongy material and a bottom, salty layer.

  7. Remove the lower salty layer2.

  8. Take the red oil from point 5 and mix it back into the black, spongy residue.

  9. Distil this mixture for 16 hours and condense the white fumes produced to form a glowing, white liquid3.

  10. Pour the white/yellow liquid into cold water to solidify it into a paste4.

 

Footnotes

1 In fact there was no need for this first step at all. It makes no difference to the amount of phosphorus produced. Brand could have avoided the smell (at least at this stage) and the maggots!

2 Brand obtained 120 grammes of phosphorus by this method. Had he left the salt layer with the residue he would have obtained a better yield since the salts were mostly phosphates.

3 This liquid ignited spontaneously in air (reacting with oxygen gas) giving off a 'garlic-like' odour.

4 Brand called this paste Phosphorus Mirabilis (from the Greek meaning glowing magic). He had, in fact, isolated white phosphorous.

 

 

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Hennig Brand 1630 - c. 1710

Hennig Brand was born in Hamburg, Germany to a reasonably well-off family. Very little is known about his upbringing but we do know that he was a young, junior military officer who served towards the end of he Thirty Years' War. Sometime after 1648 he was decommissioned and took up a position as an apprentice glass maker.

Brand's life changed when he married a rich widow. The Brands took up residence in the Michaelisplatz area of Hamburg and the couple had at least two children. Now that Brand had access to money he made the decision to 'reinvent' himself. Despite not having obtained a degree, as far as his biographers can tell, he adopted the title of Dr Brand. He seems to have insisted on being addressed as Herr Doctor Brand as soon as he set himself up as a full-time alchemist. Scanty (and maybe biased) reports from the time describe Brand as being conceited and secretive, with an unpredictable temper.

As an alchemist, Brand set about searching for the elusive 'Philosopher's Stone'. The Philosopher's Stone was said to hold the secret to everlasting life and to be able to change base metals into gold, a process known as transmutation. Brand experimented with acids, alkalis and various minerals. It his reported that he suffered physically from his effort - his hands were covered with scars and burns.

The death of his first wife might well have put an end to Brand's alchemical ambitions since his inheritance had been rapidly used up in his quest. Rather fortunately, Brand met and married another rich widow whose name, we know, was Margaretha. Brand also gained a stepson who became his assistant in the laboratory paid for with his new wife's money.

Alchemists had the tendency to associate the colour yellow with the presence of gold. Brand may well have been influenced by F.T. Kessler's 1630 book 400 Auserlesene Chemische Process when he came up with the idea that the human body contained gold that was gradually lost from the body via the urine (Kessler had used urine in an unsuccessful recipe that was supposed to change base metals into silver).

Brand collected as much urine as he could get his hands on (so to speak). At first his supplies came from his family and his neighbours but he soon realized that he would need a lot more so he turned to the army for help. There may have been a more devious reason for choosing soldiers - Brand believed that he received a better quality of urine from beer drinkers.

Brand left fifty buckets of urine, representing 1500 gallons (5500 litres), in the open air for two weeks until, in his own words, "it bred worms". Not surprisingly there were complaints from his neighbours about the terrible smell coming from the decomposing, maggot-ridden urine.

 

Brand

The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher's Stone, Discovers Phosphorus
by Joseph Wright of Derby (Derby Museum and Art Gallery)

 

The information shown to the left shows the 'recipe' that Brand used and kept secret for a number of years. It is worth remembering that he was, in fact, looking for the Philosopher's Stone and that his unintentional production of phosphorus was not his end game. In fact, the reason he kept the method secret for six years was because he was desperately trying to adapt his method to obtain gold.

Eventually his wife's money ran out and Brand let it be known that he was willing to sell his recipe to a suitable bidder. Johann Kunckel, another alchemist and a professor from the University of Wittenburg, was the first to travel to Hamburg. Although Brand must have been surprised (and, no doubt, pleased) to see such an important person on his doorstep, he refused to divulge his recipe.

When negotiations with Brand failed, Kunckel turned to another alchemist, Johann Daniel Kraft from Dresden, to intervene with Brand on his behalf. Kraft double-crossed Kunckel and made his own deal with Brand. He bought Brand's total supply of phosphorus for 200 thalers (about £13000 in today's money!) and contracted with Brand that all future supplies of phosphorus would be passed to Kraft and not to anyone else, particularly not to Kunckel!

Kraft went on to make a lot of money touring the courts of Europe demonstrating 'his' glowing paste. He gave the impression to all concerned that he had been the one to discover phosphorus. In 1677 Kraft was in Hanover and Gottfried Wilhem Leibnitz, the mathematician, happened to be in the audience. By chance, Leibnitz found himself in Hamburg later that year and, hearing tale of Hennig Brand, he searched him out.

Brand was, once again, in need of money. He had stopped supplying Kraft with samples of phosphorus and he had been foolish enough to tell Johann Kunckel that his initial ingredient had been urine. Kunckel, after a few less successful attempts, had managed to produce phosphorus in 1676. He had even published a paper (although this did not include the recipe!) and academics were giving Kunckel the credit for discovering phosphorus.

Leibnitz began negotiations with Brand on behalf of Duke Frederick of Hanover who was offering Brand the position of court alchemist. Brand seemed to stall and Leibnitz suggested that he make a trial visit to Hanover before deciding. In 1678 Brand travelled to Hanover and was set up with everything he needed to make phosphorus. Leibnitz assisted in the production and was impressed by the quality of the phosphorus that Brand's recipe produced.

After Brand's return to Hamburg Leibnitz did not hear from him for a few months. Eventually Brand contacted Leibnitz to say that his daughter had died of an illness that had also affected Brand and his other children. Brand was also asking for more money. The Duke did agree to increase the proposed salary and Brand did return to Hanover to make more phosphorus but, after that, Brand's life is a mystery. Leibnitz, however, published Brand's recipe but under his own name - he did not credit Hennig Brand for his contribution.

Brand might well have been completely erased from the phosphorus story had it not been for letters that had been written by his second wife, Margaretha to Leibnitz. These letters, discovered amongst Leibnitz's papers after his death, provided proof that Hennig Brand had been the first to isolate the element. There were some famous scientists, including Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, who reportedly used Brand's method to obtain phosphorous. Urine was the main source of phosphorous until 1769 when Carl Wilhem Scheele developed a method of extracting phosphorous from bone.

 

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