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Chemistry Index

Chemical Element Identification Timeline
History of Phosphorus : Introduction and Timeline

History of Science and Technology Index

Characters involved in the Phosphorus Story

Hennig Brand (1630 - c. 1710)
Johann Daniel Krafft (1624 - 1697) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716)
Johann Joachim Becher (1635 - c. 1682)
Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691) and his Assistants

Transcripts of Publications (1677 - 1853)

Aerial Noctiluca : Robert Boyle 1680

Icy Noctiluca : Robert Boyle 1682

An Account of four sorts of factitious
Shining Substances : Robert Boyle 1677

A Paper of the Honourable Robert Boyle's,
Opened Since His Death (1692)

Some Observations made upon an Artificial
Shining Substance : Robert Boyle 1677

Extracts from John Evelyn's Diary 1681 and 1685

Experiments made with the liquid and of the solid
Phosphorus : Frederick Slare 1681

Extract from Experiments of the Luminous
Qualities of Amber : Samuel Wall 1708

On the Discovery of Phosphorus and a
Biography of Ambrose Godfrey
Hanckwitz : Joseph Ince 1853

An Extract from "An Account of some
Experiments upon the Phosphorus Urinæ"
by Ambrose Godfrey Hanckwitz 1731

Other Information

The Chemical Equations involved in the Luminescence of Phosphorus



Johann Kunckel (1630 - 1703)


Part of the communication of John Christopher Sturmius (paragraphs have been added)

......... Concerning the 'Noctiluca' or 'Phosphorus' of Dr. Kunkelium, I suppose you may before this have received some account, but whether you have heard of his Pills, which he calls "Miraculous", I much doubt. I thought therefore it might not be unacceptable to you to receive this following account of them.

This chymist, Dr. Kunkell prepares out of the same condensed light (which by his skill he knows how to extract out of any kind of terrestrial body whatsoever, as if it were there naturally placed) certain pills about the bigness of peas (to which he ascribes very strange comforting and medicinal virtues).

These (the pills) being moistened a little, and in the dark scraped with a nail, knife or the like, do yield a very considerable light, not without a conspicuous smoke, also, which afford a light yet much more pleasant and strange.

If about eight or ten of them be put into a glass of water, and therewith shook in the dark, for thereby all the water and the cavity of the glass will seem perfectly filled with light, flashing by turns very briskly - as I myself, not without the admiration of the spectators, have several times experimented.

The same Dr. Kunkelius hath also reduced the same lucid matter into the form of larger stones (which I have not had the good fortune to see myself) which being warmed by the hand (but especially if they are a little scrapped) or rubbed upon a paper or table, describe letters very legible in the dark.




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Johann Kunckel and his Role in the Phosphorus Story

Johann Kunckel was born in 1630 (although some sources put his date of birth as late as 1638) near Rendsburg in Schleswig-Holstein, the most northern of the German states that borders with Denmark. Kunckel's father, Jurgen, was a master glass maker and a resident alchemist at the court of Frederick III of Holstein-Gottorp.

Although Kunckel did not attend university there is no doubt that he was an apprentice to his father, both in the art of glassmaking and that of alchemy. When he was eighteen Kunckel may have started an apprenticeship in Hamburg under the patronage of Frederick III. Around 1658, and probably in his twenties, Kunckel found employment as an alchemist to the Elector Duke Franz Carl of Saxe-Lauenberg.

When the Duke Franz Carl died in 1660, Kunckel moved to Hamburg where he worked as an assistant apothecary (pharmacist). After his marriage in 1662, Kunckel was unsuccessful in his attempt at a start-up pharmacy in Eckernforde, just north of his hometown in Schleswig-Holstein. Instead, in 1663, he started work as head alchemist and apothecary for the Elector Duke Julius Heinrich of Saxe-Lauenburg in Hauenstein Castle, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).

Duke Julius Heinrich died in 1665 and Kunckel may have spent a couple of years in Hamburg, possibly making a visit to the Netherlands to study Italian glassmaking. By 1667 Kunckel was in Dresden in the employ of Johann George II, Elector of Saxony, Here Kunckel was given access to the Elector's alchemical collection, having been tasked with researching the secret of transmutation (making gold from base metals). Kunckel must have learnt a lot during his research, particularly how to recognize charlatan alchemists. Kunckel was also placed in charge of the royal laboratory in Dresden which gave him the opportunity to learn about the chemistry behind glassmaking. He also had the opportunity to work in the Annaberg laboratory.

In 1675, after eight years in Dresden, Kunckel was dismissed from his post (although some sources suggest that he resigned). He had failed to make gold. Kunckel insisted that his "dismissal" was the work of court intrigues and plots against him. It was towards the end of his tenure in Dresden that Kunckel must have met Johann Daniel Krafft who had been employed by the Elector to set up a mulberry plantation as a prelude to the eventual production of silk.

Kunckel was offered a post as a practical chemistry instructor at Wittenberg University. He was helped by Georg Caspar Kirchmaeir, a professor of rhetoric, who managed to procure the laboratory space for practical work. Kunckel's lack of a university degree meant that he was limited to overseeing practical work and not qualified to lecture. This probably did not worry Kunckel too much since working in the laboratory allowed him the opportunity for practical research. He became particularly interested in luminescent materials.

It was during a visit to Hamburg in 1675, where he had taken a sample of "phosphorus balduinus1 " to show a friend, that he learnt of the existence of Hennig Brand and his "kalte feurer" (cold fire). Kunckel paid a visit to Herr Docteur Brand's house in Hamburg and was shown a sample of this new "phosphorus". Kunckel, rather arrogantly and perhaps ironically, quickly realized that Brand, who spoke with a local accent, knew no Latin and did not merit the title of "Herr Docteur". It may have been Kunckel's stand-offish attitude that caused negotiations to fail. Desperate as he was for money, Brand would not come to a deal with Kunckel, either for a sample of his phosphorus or for the "recipe" to manufacture it.

1Accidently discovered by Christoph Adolph Balduin (aka Baldwin, Balduinous, Baldwinus) in 1674. This stone, found in Saxony, produced phosphorescence when the residue of chalk treated with concentrated nitric acid was ignited resulting in a type of calcium nitrate. It is said that Kunckel visited Balduin and deliberately distracted him so that he could steal a small piece of Phosphorus Balduinous.

Kunckel was equally as desperate to obtain a sample of Brand's phosphorus or, better still, his recipe, so he enlisted the help of his friend Johann Daniel Krafft to intervene on his behalf. However, Krafft double-crossed Kunckel and made a deal with Brand for his present and all future supplies of phosphorus. This deal, worth 200 thalers2 to Brand, gave Krafft the monopoly on the phosphorus supply. (It is worth noting that many sources maintain that Brand gave his recipe to Krafft but this is extremely unlikely in view of later events. There is no evidence that Krafft made any phosphorus; he just made a lot of money by exploiting Brand's hard work.)

2From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: The thaler was a silver coin used throughout Europe for almost four hundred years. Its name lives on in the many currencies called dollar. Developed into The Holy Roman Empire's Reichstaler (1566 to 1750) and became the coin of account of the whole Empire.

In July 1675, having received no communication from Krafft, Kunckel pays another visit to Hamburg. Brand is eager to be rid of his visitor and, in his haste to close the door on Kunckel, let's it slip that urine is used in the preparation. (Again, it is worth noting that some sources state that Brand sold his recipe to Kunckel. This is unlikely, although Kunckel's process, particularly the length of time that the first residue is left to stand in a cellar, is very close to Brand's. It might well be that Brand revealed more than just the starting material but not the whole recipe).

Kunckel returns to Wittenberg and begins experimenting with urine. By April 1676 he manages to produce a very small sample of "the phosphorus" but it is mixed with impurities and is the wrong colour and consistency. Kunckel writes to Brand on 25th June 1676 imploring him to send his recipe. In the letter, Kunckel tries to reassure Brand that, if he uses alchemical language then, should his letter get into the wrong hands, it would be meaningless to whoever read it. Kunckel also complains to Brand that he has given samples of his phosphorus to Krafft. He begs Brand not to give away any more samples. In his reply, Brand not only refused Kunckel's request but also admitted that he had contracted himself to Krafft.

His anger over Krafft's deception made Kunckel even more determined to succeed. In July 1676 he produced a phosphorus that "outshone" that of Hennig Brand. Kunckel had added sand to the urine residue before distilling it. The addition of sand (silicon oxide or silicate) was probably to prevent the glassware from cracking but it, by chance, increased the final yield of phosphorus because the silicon oxide reacted with phosphorus salts liberating phosphorus. Unfortunately for Brand, his letter to Kunckel offering to sell his recipe arrived too late - Kunckel was already making phosphorus.

Having succeeded in producing phosphorus, Kunckel set about advertising his product. It is his friend, Georg Caspar Kirchmaier who is the first to put pen to paper, although omitting the recipe. "Noctiluca constans et per vices Fulgurans" was published in Wittenberg in 1676. Continuing the publicity campaign Kirchmaier corresponds with Henry Oldenburg, the Secretary of the Royal Society in London. His two letters to Oldenburg are dated 25 February 1677 and 25th March 1677. It is likely that Kunckel, in turn, is corresponding with Robert Hooke (who became the Secretary of the Royal Society after the death of Henry Oldenburg in September 1677). Hooke receives a letter in 1677 describing a phosphorus that is much brighter than the one that Krafft (presumably) is touring with.

In his letter to Oldenburg, Kirchmaier describes "phosphorus fulgurans" that is able to shine in the dark without first being heated or ignited. He claims that just a small piece has been shinning for two years (probably an exaggeration considering the time scale) and he speculates that a larger piece might well provide perpetual, or at least long lasting light.

Kunckel does show his phosphorus at the courts of Brandenburg and Saxony. However, these demonstrations were apparently marred by the foul odour from oil that had not been removed from the larger pieces of phosphorus! A certain John Christopher Sturmius who witnessed one of these demonstrations sent a descriptive letter to the Royal Society that was published in Philosophical Transactions in 1681. A more modern day transcript of "Noctiluca or Phosphorus of Dr. Kunkelium" is shown to the left.

It would seem that Kunckel did not invest much time in touring with his product. He made his money by selling phosphorus (it is known that Robert Boyle in London was in possession of a sample of Kunckel's phosphorus in 1678) and using it to prepare medicinal pills. Kunckel placed his pills into "solutions" of either gold or silver to coat them. These pills were to be taken orally and Kunckel promoted them as preventing apoplexy and as a cure for any "sudden sickness". He maintained that there were no side effects and that the action of his pills was, effectively, magical.

Kunckel does eventually publish in 1678, naming his phosphorus "noctiluca mirabilis". In "Oeffentliche Zuschrifft von dem Phosphoro Mirabilis und Dessen Leuchtenden Wunder-Pilen" (Treatise of the Phosphorus Mirabilis and its Wonderful Shinning Pills) He does not publish his recipe but he does make the claim that phosphorus can be produced from many organic substances. Johann Kunckel received a lifetime annual gratuity from the Elector Duke Johann Frederick of Hanover for his 'discovery' of phosphorus.

In 1679 Kunckel took up a position in Berlin as Director of the Alchemical Laboratory and Glassworks under the patronage of Frederick William, Duke of Brandenburg3 . Kunckel was offered this post after exposing a fraudulent alchemist who had wormed his way into the Duke's favour. By this time Kunckel appears to have lost interest in phosphorus and he is quoted as saying "I am not making it (phosphorus) any more for much harm can come of it".

3Interestingly, there is an entry in the 1681 Royal Society minutes, penned by Robert Hooke, stating that he had received a letter from Henri Justel, dated Paris 1st January, states "...... Kunckel who invented liquid phosphorus has left Saxony and was gone to Poland".

During the nine years Kunckel spends in Berlin there is an interesting communication in 1684 with the Royal Society. The Royal Society is asked to arbitrate regarding a scientific disagreement between Kunckel and another alchemist, Johann Voigt (who had acted as a referee for Kunckel for the Dresden post in 1667). The transcript received by the Royal Society was written in high Dutch and sanctioned by the Elector of Brandenburg. The dispute was about whether Spirit of Wine was acidic (Voigt's claim) or alkaline (Kunckel's). The Royal Society members asked Robert Boyle to look into the matter but he was not the slightest bit interested stating that "the Society should not be used to judge these cases". After a year of experimentation and deliberation, not only in London but also in Dublin, the Royal Society declared on the side of Kunckel.

Frederick William died in 1688 and was succeeded by a new Elector, Frederick III. When Kunckel realized that his privileges were being systematically revoked he started to look for another position. The opportunity presented itself in 1689 when Kunckel accepted the post of Minister of Swedish Mines under Charles XI. In 1693 Kunckel was made Baron von Löwenstern and was elected to the Board of Mines. He spent much of his time in his country house in Germany and there are differing opinions about the time and place of his death. Some sources cite this as being 20 March 1703 in Stockholm and others 1703 in Germany.

In his "Experimental Confirmation of Chymical Philosophy" (also referred to as Laboratorium Chymicum) published in Hamburg in 1716 around fourteen years after his death, Kunckel not only provided his recipe for making phosphorus but he also claimed to have succeeded in at least three transmutations! One hundred years after his death Kunckel was being hailed as the discoverer of phosphorus.


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