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Characters involved in the Phosphorus Story
Transcripts of Publications (1677 - 1853)
Aerial Noctiluca : Robert Boyle 1680
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716)
HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Johann Daniel Krafft and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and their Role in the Phosphorus Story
It is really quite difficult to separate the roles of Krafft and Leibniz in the phosphorus story. These two men met in Mainz in their mid-twenties at the court of the Elector in what could have been as early as 1667. Krafft was there as a trade advisor and Leibniz was an advisor on judicial reform. They were both friends and business partners. Krafft was one of the leading Cameralists in Saxony. Cameralism promoted the influence of science and technology in manufacture and economics. It also promoted State controlled trade, advocating 'home grown' products rather than foreign imports in an attempt to boost the economy after the devastating effects of the Thirty Years War.
Leibniz is to be thanked for our insight into the relationship between himself and Krafft since he kept much of his correspondence. The two men wrote to each other over a period spanning twenty five years, starting in the summer of 1671. Leibniz used Krafft to keep him informed about the activities of another Cameralist and alchemist, Johann Joachim Becher who, for some reason, Leibniz felt that he needed to keep a close eye on.
Apparently Krafft was a medical doctor and it is known that he spent some time from 1662 as a resident physician at the Harz mines. Sources describe him as widely travelled, certainly around Europe and, according to Leibniz, to the New World1. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a respected philosopher, logician, scientist and political advisor, best known for his contribution to mathematics in the development of differential calculus. He was also a prolific correspondent and much of what we know about the phosphorus story comes from the letters that were discovered after his death.
Krafft and Leibniz were constantly looking for ways to use science to make money. Their projects included the manufacture of silk and glass, refining sugar and, of course, making phosphorus. They were very interested in being granted monopolies whenever possible, as with their successful bid for the hop monopoly in 1677. However, Krafft lacked business acumen and proved to be incapable of seeing a project through to its conclusion - both of these factors resulted in the failure of many of his ventures.
In 1674 Krafft was involved with one of their more successful enterprises - managing a silk factory in Leipzig. He had convinced his patron, Johann Georg II to invest in weaving and spinning. Rather horrifyingly this involved setting up poorhouses so that the inmates could be 'engaged in productive labour'. Around the same time Krafft had a hand in setting up a large mulberry plantation to provide silk for a factory he had yet to establish in Dresden.
It is possible that Krafft got to know Johann Kunckel during his time in Dresden and it was to Krafft that Kunckel turned to in 1676 after his failure to make a deal with Hennig Brand for his phosphorus recipe. Krafft traveled to Hamburg and drew up a contract with Brand. He paid Brand 200 thalers2 for all his supply phosphorus and for a monopoly on future production. Krafft particularly emphasized to Brand that he should have no further dealings with Kunckel.
There are some sources that believe Krafft obtained Brand's recipe and even that Krafft produced phosphorus himself. There is no evidence for either of these two outcomes and later events would indicate that Krafft only had access to the phosphorus that Brand provided him with. It is also very likely that Leibniz was involved in Krafft's dealings with Brand, probably providing financial backing, from the start, considering their business partnerships.
As soon as he has a supply of phosphorus, Krafft began his very successful and lucrative tour of European courts showing his "das kalte feuer". On 24 April 1676 he was at the court of the Elector of Brandenburg. Johann Sigismund Elsholtz was present and it is clear from his account that Krafft gave the impression that he was the discoverer of phosphorus. In early 1677. Krafft visited the court of Duke Johann Frederick of Saxony in Hanover and Krafft's business partner, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who was one of the Duke's Privy counsellors, was one of the attendees3 . Leibniz convinced the Duke to support Krafft financially which he agreed to do but only on condition that Leibniz was given the recipe.
It was now Leibniz's turn to visit Brand in Hamburg. Krafft and Leibniz had plans to make phosphorous production commercially viable but they needed the recipe. Leibniz must have been very annoyed to discover that Johann Joachim Becher was also making overtures to Brand on behalf of Duke Gustav Adolph. Leibniz decided that the best course of action is to lure Brand to Hanover with the offer of employment as court alchemist. The Brands, Hennig and his wife Margaretha, made a determined effort to play Becher against Leibniz in an attempt to make as much money as possible.
In a series of letters to Leibniz and Krafft, the Brands made threats to go with Becher unless the money being offered is raised. Margaretha writes to Leibniz "Dr. Becher is ever so honest and four weeks ago, as he left Hamburg for Amsterdam4, he honoured my husband with ninety four Reichsthaler". Brand was probably unaware that Krafft was working with Leipzig and that allowed Krafft to advise Brand against Becher. However, in a letter to Krafft, Brand writes "Dr. Becher is as honest a man I have met in all my days while Leibniz is a fickle person".
The Duke of Saxony authorized Leibniz to offer Brand ten thalers per month as court alchemist and he was willing to pay six months in advance if Brand gave up his recipe for making phosphorus. Brand is still hedging his bets, no doubt waiting for a counter-offer from Becher. Becher, however, has 'skipped town' and abandons Duke Gustav Adolph for seemingly more advantageous opportunities the Netherlands. Leibniz suggests that Brand accepts a trial period in Hanover and, in the summer of 1678, Brand travels to Hanover and sets up his apparatus in a laboratory just outside the city. The supply of urine was obtained from soldiers in a local barracks. It is unlikely that during this visit Leibniz is made aware of the formula even though he may have been present during some stages of the preparation. Leibniz is impressed with the phosphorus Brand produces. Brand, however, returned to Hamburg with the promise to make more phosphorus and send it to Leibniz.
After Brand's return to Hamburg Leibniz did not hear from him for a few months. During this time Brand writes to Krafft looking for a better deal and even offering the famous recipe. However, Krafft is not interested since he has already shown phosphorus in the German courts, in the Netherlands and in London. On 24th December 1678 Krafft writes to his friend Leibniz and sends him Brand's angry reply to this news. Eventually Brand writes to Leibniz telling him that the family had been struck by illness, that one of his daughters had died and that he was 'thoroughly disgusted with Krafft'. Brand asks for more money and the Duke of Saxony agrees to offer him 10 thalers per week (a 300% increase!).
Brand returned to Hanover in 1679 to make phosphorus. Again, his experiment was successful and it is certain that, after this visit, Leibniz is in possession of the recipe. Hennig Brand did not take up the promised position as court alchemist and, after two months, he returned to Hamburg. There is no information about Brand after he left Hanover. He continued to exchange letters with Leibniz, the last one sent on 23rd August 1682. Leibniz considered Brand must still be living in 1710 since he had not heard anything to the contrary5. In 1682 Leibniz sent a letter to Count Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirahaus in Paris. The letter included Brand's recipe and Leibniz sent a sample of phosphorus to von Tschirahaus on his request. The recipe was published in the journal of the Académie6 and as a result of this, von Tschirahaus was elected a member of the Académie des Sciences in July 1682.
Meanwhile in 1677 Krafft was negotiating with representatives of King Charles II in London as to his fee for presenting 'his' phosphorus at the English court. The members of the Royal Society are eagerly awaiting this event. They have received letters about Johann Kunckel's phosphorus and eye witness accounts of Krafft's demonstrations have been published. The enthusiasm of the Royal Society was probably the reason the King agreed to pay Krafft the equivalent of around £30000 in today's money!
Robert Boyle was particularly eager to witness Krafft's demonstration. On 15th September 1677 Krafft7 was invited to Boyle's residence (at the time he was living with his sister in Pall Mall). A select gathering of Royal Society members had been invited and the events of the evening were well documented by Boyle and published in the Royal Society journal 'Philosophical Transactions'. In his article Boyle refers to Krafft as 'The Artist". There was one bit of the demonstration that did not work on 15th September and that was using the phosphorus to light gunpowder. Krafft was invited to return one week later and, on 22nd September 1677, in the presence of Boyle and Robert Hooke, he went back to Pall Mall to try again8 . This time, using small quantities of both materials, Krafft succeeded in igniting the gunpowder. Boyle was very keen to obtain the recipe and he even offered to let Krafft have some alchemical secrets in exchange. Of course Krafft could not let Boyle have this information even if he wanted to - he did not know how the phosphorus was made. He did let Boyle know that 'It was made from something from the body of man'. This hint was enough for a scientist of Boyle's quality to realize that the source was probably urine and by 30 September 1680 Boyle had succeeded in producing phosphorus.
It seems incredible that, with all the money Krafft made from phosphorus, he was unable to spend the rest of his life comfortably off with his family. Unfortunately his poor business acumen and his drive to attempt new entrepreneurial projects, too often doomed to failure, meant that Krafft lost money as easily as he sometimes managed to make it. In October 1694 Krafft left his wife and children in their home in Arnstein and travelled to the Netherlands. He was never to see his family again.
Leibniz joined Krafft in Amsterdam in November 1694. The two old business partners had a list of new projects, one of which was trying to obtain the monopoly on brandy manufacture from William of Orange. By the end of November 1694 Leibniz left Krafft in Amsterdam and returned to Hanover. En route he called in on Krafft's wife and family.
Leibniz and Krafft continued to correspond, primarily about the brandy monopoly, for two months after Leibniz left Amsterdam and then Krafft falls silent until April 1695. In his letter to Leibniz, Krafft makes the excuse that he has been suffering from gout. His next correspondence is in February 1696. It is full of apologies and news on a variety of ambitious projects (one of which is starting a lottery!). By this time Leibniz is being warned by other prominent scientists to be careful with regard to Krafft. Jan Baptist Von Helmont writes 'what I would say to you about this Mr. Krafft, I would say that I would distance myself voluntarily from such people'.
Leibniz loses his patience with Krafft and writes in March 1696 to let Krafft know how he feels. After a long delay Krafft writes on 30th September 1696 asking for money. The reply from Leibniz, dated March 1697, does not hold back his anger. He tells Krafft that he has been a complete waste of Leibniz's time and money. He also tells Krafft that their association has had a negative effect on his reputation. Leibniz does not hear from Krafft again.
Johann Krafft was an opportunist who made a fortune demonstrating phosphorus that he claimed to have discovered. He died on 9th April 1697 far from home and practically penniless. Having obtained the recipe for making phosphorus in 1679, it is unlikely that Gottfried Leibniz invested much (if any) time in making it himself. Leibniz had taken possession of the two batches that Brand produced in Hanover and it is documented that he sent a sample of phosphorus to Christiaan Huygens.
By 1678 Johann Kunckel had perfected his technique and was selling phosphorus pills and by late 1680 Robert Boyle had published his book 'Aerial Noctiluca'. The opportunity for Krafft and Leibniz to corner the phosphorus market had slipped through their fingers. It was Boyle's assistant, Ambrose Godfrey Hanckwitz, who turned the production of phosphorus into a commercial success.
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