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Characters involved in the Phosphorus Story
Transcripts of Publications (1677 - 1853)
Aerial Noctiluca : Robert Boyle 1680
Johann Joachim Becher (dated 1635)
Commemorative medal made of lead,
Cover of a 1666 publication 'Mille Hypotheses
Cover of Becher's "Physica subterranea" 1669
Illustration from Becher's Tripus Hermeticus Fatidicus,
HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Johann Joachim Becher and his (small) Role in the Phosphorus Story
There is nothing about Johann Joachim Becher that can be considered straight forward. Even the years of both his birth and his death are in question. Becher gave his year of birth as 1635 but, allegedly, at some stage he took ten years off of his age so that he would not seem too old for potential employers. If true, Becher could have been born in 1625. Most sources give 1682 as the year he died, supposedly in poverty, in London. Some researchers suggest that he may have lived until 1685, having gained a high ranking sponsor and travelled back to Germany. Becher was a restless adventurer who had ideas for grand schemes that he either abandoned en route or failed to get off the ground. A contemporary and a sometime adversary, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, said of Becher that he was 'a man of greatest ingenuity, but not a little restless, which has brought down ill-will upon him everywhere'.
Becher's character traits did little to endear him to those around him, in fact they were the catalysts for plots and malicious rumours that were to plague him throughout his career. He was described as being haughty and as having a violent temper. He was undoubtedly an embezzler and a very skillful con-artist. It is remarkable, therefore, that two of Becher's publications were to dominate their respective fields, political economics and alchemy, for over one hundred years.
If we are to believe Becher's account, he was born in Speyer, Germany in 1635, the eldest of three brothers. His mother, Anna Margaretha Gauss, was the daughter of a pastor who had served in the Augustinian church before the start of the Thirty Years War. Becher's father, Joachim, had been a school teacher in Strasburg before becoming a Lutheran minister in Speyer. He was a cultured man who wrote well and was very gifted in languages, reportedly fluent in ten of them. Unfortunately, these two important figures in Becher's life died within a year of each other when Becher was only eight years old - his father in 1643 and his grandfather in 1644.
According to Becher, his mother remarried and his step-father lost no time in spending the children's small endowment and beating his step sons into submission. When the Thirty Years War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Becher and his family moved away from Speyer to find work. Becher maintained that his step-father had died by this time leaving his wife and step-sons as paupers and, at the tender age of thirteen, Becher was the main breadwinner for the family. According to his autobiography, Becher and his family found themselves in Stockholm, Sweden where they lived until 1652.
Becher claims that he received no formal education. It is hard to believe that his father and maternal grandfather did not tutor him when they were alive. On the other hand life in Speyer during the Thirty Years War could not have been easy for a Protestant family. The town had left the Protestant Union in 1621 and declared itself neutral, even though it was under the control of the Catholic League. Speyer became a center for refugees and a military base for troops and supplies. It also had a military hospital that tended to the wounded soldiers. The inhabitants were hit hard by taxation. Speyer changed hands at least three times between 1632 and 1635 controlled by the Swedish, French and the Holy Roman Empire, with each occupying army demanding money and supplies. On top of this turmoil, the town saw an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1632 and was hit by famine in 1636 and 1637. Considering everything the family had to suffer maybe Becher's claim is not so hard to believe.
The young Becher supported his family by taking on any form of employment available such as manual labour and handicraft work. If he lacked the skills then he learnt and practiced on the job. He spent his nights studying and even managed to find a teaching post for a while although, according to Becher's own account, teaching did not pay well. In 1654, then nineteen years old, Becher edited an alchemical work, 'Tractatus de lapide trismegisto' that was published under the pseudonym Solinus Salzthal. One year later, in 1655, Becher was in Vienna employed as mathematician to the Bavarian Emperor Ferdinand III.
In 16581 Becher turns up in Mainz. It seems that the Elector of Mainz, Johann Philipp von Schönborn had been impressed by Becher's plans for a perpetual motion clock2 and, by June 1660, Becher was established as court physician and mathematician. In the same year, now twenty six years old, Becher published Metallurgia that established him as a metallurgist and a chemist. One of his claims was the invention of a 'thermoscope' that was able to automatically regulate the temperature of a furnace.
1Becher's correspondence with Henry Oldenburg of the Royal Society in London dates from 1958. Becher writes in a letter dated 1660 that, on the Restoration of King Charles II, he is ready to offer his services to the 'English State' once a salary and his position have been settled.
2The clock tower that Becher had convinced the Elector to pay for to house the perpetual motion clock was erected in the market square in Mainz in late 1658. The mechanism involved nine metal balls each weighing two pounds. The balls ran through a channel and caused a weight to rise. This moved the clock hands but the clock did not strike the hour. (From a letter dated 17th July 1659 from a Mr. Beet to Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society in London. This was second hand information based on a letter Mr. Beet had received from a Mr. Rupp who had seen the perpetual motion clock in Mainz).
In 1661 Becher obtained a doctorate in medicine from the University of Mainz. The subject of his acceptance speech was the Philosopher's Stone. The doctorate may well have been a deserved qualification, although some sources suggest it was more of a wedding gift from his future father-in-law, Ludwig von Hörnigk. Becher married Maria Veronika von Hörnigk in 1662. His conversion to Catholicism at this time was probably a matter of expediency rather than any spiritual conviction. By 1663 he had taken over from his father-in-law as Professor of Medicine at the University. His two publications in the same year, Oedipum Chemicum, oder Chymischer Rätseldeuter and Thier - Kräuter - Und Berg-Buch cemented Becher's reputation in academic circles, both at home and abroad.
The good times were not destined to last. Becher's rapid rise in status had gained him adversaries. In 1661 the Elector of Mainz had chosen Becher to work on a universal language with the promise of 200 thalers3 (about £13000 in today's money) on completion of the work. When Becher presented Character pro notitia linguarum universali, listing ten thousand words of the new language, to Elector Philip von Schönborn, barely acknowledged it and no remuneration was forthcoming. Becher must have seen the writing on the wall even before his dismissal from the court in 1664.
3From 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.
After a brief (and unsuccessful) spell in Mannheim in 1664 working for Elector Karl Ludwig of the Palatinate to introduce factories for the manufacture of paper, glass and silk, Becher moved to Munich under the patronage of Ferdinand Maria Elector of Bavaria. He was appointed as the Elector's court Alchemist, Advisor, Physician and Mathematician and he was earning a generous salary. It was in Munich that Becher established a laboratory that was to become one of the three most influential in the country.
Becher could not avoid making enemies. He was a Cameralist who advocated for the increasing the influence of science and technology in manufacture and economics. Cameralism promoted State controlled trade and supported 'home grown' products rather than foreign imports in an attempt to boost the economy after the devastating effects of the Thirty Years' War. Becher also included the colonies in his Cameralist ideas and saw these far off dependencies as a way of providing cheap raw materials, including valuable ores and gold. He made enemies of the merchants because he worked to bring their monopolies under State control, to break up guilds and to create trading companies. He also upset the nobles because his ideas gave more power to the working classes. In 1664, the same year he started work in the Munich court, he made his first visit to Holland to try to get access to a colony in the New World, to hire artisans and to create trading companies.
In 1666 Becher was forced to leave Munich, even though he was still working for the Elector Ferdinand Maria. His destination was Vienna where he had managed to gain the support from the Prime Minister Albrecht von Zinzendorf who recommended Becher to Emperor Leopald I. Becher accepted the position as Imperial Commercial Advisor to the Emperor. One of his early projects was setting up the first private silk manufacture process at Walpersdorf which ran for sixteen years until its failure in 1682.
In 1667 Becher was still in Vienna where he set up an Oriental Trading Company that moved coffee beans from Vienna to Constantinople. The same year he published Regeln der christlichen Bundesgenossenschaft, a Cameralist mercantilist book that was highly influential in Germany for the next one hundred and fifty years.
A dispute with the President of the Bureau of Finance, Georg Ludwig von Zinzendorf, no doubt a relative of the Prime Minister, was the cause of Becher returning to Munich. Somehow he managed to maintain his two positions, the one in Munich and the other in Vienna, over the following four years. If he was asked, however, he always referred to himself as Advisor to the Emperor!
In 1668 Becher published Politicischer Discurs von den eigentlichen Ursachen des Auf- und Abnehmens der Städte, länder und Republiken, a book that ran to six editions up to 1759. It was another Cameralist epistle that promoted the formation of trading companies, manufacturers and the setting up of Houses of Commerce. Becher was particularly advocating protective tariffs against French imports.
In 1669 Becher spent three months in Holland. The Holland West India Company had awarded Friedrich Casimir Count of Hanau three thousand square miles of territory in Guyana, South America. Becher had a plan to set up a colony on the land that would clear the rainforest and create a massive fertile region between the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers. With a great deal of flourish and publicity the Hanau West India Company was launched, even though there were no ships to put to sea. The great scheme failed spectacularly and Becher was duly accused of incompetence and fraud. He quickly made his way back to Munich.
In 1669 Becher published one of his most important books resulting from four years of research work in the Munich laboratory. He dedicated Physica subterranea profundum subteraneorum genesin, seu Acta Laboratorii Monacensis to the Elector Ferdinand Maria. It was this book that launched the Phlogiston Theory into the scientific community. Details of the Phlogiston Theory can be found through this link that opens in a new window (The development of the Phlogiston Theory). The Phlogiston Theory was to dominate alchemical and chemical thinking for over one hundred years until Antoine Lavoisier employed quantitative experimental methods to disprove it.
1670 was to be Becher's final year in Munich. Since before his trip to Holland he had been working on a method of extracting iron from clay and linseed oil (so, basically, obtaining a metal from non-metal sources). It was Becher's belief that both clay and linseed oil contained Prima Materia from which metals are made. There were several eye witness reports attesting to the validity of the experiment that was even performed in the presence of Elector Philipp in Mainz. News of this experiment reached the Royal Society in London whose members later tried it out for themselves and Becher's 'Experimentum Chymicum Novum' was reviewed in Philosophical Transactions of 14th August 1671.
By the end of 1670 Becher had moved to Vienna to work full time for Emperor Leopold I. Besides (rather ironically) advising the Emperor on alchemical charlatans, between 1671 and 1675 Becher was involved in a variety of projects and schemes, only a few of which were successful. The list (see left) gives some idea of the scope and diversity of his activities.
In 1676 Becher left Vienna with his brother-in-law, Phillip von Hörnigk to try to enforce a ban on imports from France. He was even jailed briefly for protesting against French imports. However, incarceration was not Becher's biggest problem. His absence from the court had given his enemies the opportunity to turn the Emperor against him. They were quick to accuse Becher of bribery and their plots made it impossible for him to return in safety.
Becher had not forgotten his apparent success in turning sand from the banks of the Danube into gold (see left). In 1676 Becher is most likely the "Goldmaker" in a contract made with Johann Daniel Krafft, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Georg Hermann Schuller. (It is known that Leibniz helped finance this venture but he did not want his participation made public. The money he sent to Schuller was "to buy books" and Leibniz insisted that all correspondence was coded). Becher had already tried to tempt Prince Hermann of Baden who was in Holland to finance a much more ambitious plan to extract gold from Dutch sea sand. He had put it to the Prince that the gold produced would help finance the war with France. Prince Hermann did have a war to deal with so did not fall for the bait. Undeterred, Becher approached the Dutch government with his plan.
While still negating with the Dutch, in 1677 Becher entered the service of Duke Gustav Adolph of Mecklenburg-Gustrow in Rostock. Becher remains in Holland for as long as he can, promising the Dutch government an income of millions of thalers if they finance his project. The Dutch were careful about their dealings with alchemists and probably still remembered Becher's Hanau West India Company failure in 1669. It was decided to appoint a committee to oversee tests before making any financial commitment. The committee agreed to give Becher the equivalent of £9000 to start the experiment and this involved the construction of a large, overshot waterwheel that Becher had not only invented but also patented.
In the middle of his negotiations with the Dutch, Becher is ordered back to Mecklenburg by the Duke. The Dutch were furious, assuming that Becher had reneged on the deal and he was threatened with imprisonment for fraud. It is very likely that Duke Gustav Adolph sends Becher to Hamburg to see Hennig Brand in 1678 to try to make a deal with him and obtain the famous recipe for making phosphorus.
And this point Becher's actions seem bizarre and are hard to explain. He does go to see Brand but he has competition in the form of Leibniz. Leibniz is desperate to get Becher away from Hanover and, as if by chance, Becher takes off for Holland, destination Haarlem. He effectively leaves the Duke's service since he never goes back to Mecklenburg and he failed his employer in his negotiations with Brand. It is maybe just co-incidence that Becher was one of five founding members of a short-lived company founded in 1678. One of the other signatories was Johann Daniel Krafft, a good friend of Leibniz and effectively working with him in his negotiations with Brand. One source suggests that Becher needed to go to Haarlem to complete a project he had been paid for. Whatever the reason, the five-membered company was contracted to set up a silk factory in Haarlem using child labour and new winding mechanisms, invented by Becher, for spooling the silk from cocoons.
It is doubtful that this enterprise met with any success since, on 14th February 1679, Becher returned to The Hague in order to complete is gold from sea sand project. A huge furnace was constructed and the first test was witnessed by a certain Lorenz Keerwolff who reported that it had been successful. In March 1679 a second test was concluded, this time in front of the Mayor of Amsterdam and a group of government officials. This second test was also reported as being successful. The Dutch government agreed to fund a large scale production.
Becher managed to convince the Dutch that a large quantity of silver was required to produce gold from sea sand and, amazingly enough, this was forthcoming. Not surprisingly, Becher escaped to England with an unknown quantity of Dutch silver before the large scale plant could be tested (news about the success of the trials had spread and a large crowd was expected to view the launch). Becher left his family behind when he fled, giving the excuse that his enemies from the court at Vienna had turned the Dutch commission against him and he feared for his life. Becher's Trifolium Becherianum Hollandicum, oder: Drey neue Erfindungen was published in 1679 just before he absconded from Holland4.
4A 1679 letter from Leibniz to Huygens in Paris (with which Leibniz sends Christiaan Huygens a sample of phosphorus) includes this inquiry - "you have heard mention of the attempt of Mr. Becher, in Holland, to extract gold from sand. There are persons here that think well of him. Mr. Hudde is, as you know, one of the commissioners. Mr. Becher says he is also dealing with the French. I should like to know if you have heard talk of it in Paris. As for me, I am skeptical of his success, for I believe I know a little about the nature of this experiment. He does find a vestige of gold, but I do not think he has gained any of it, for he claims that the proportion of gold is greater in large than in small amounts, which seems paridoxical."
Probably recommended by Dr. Edmund Dickenson, a fellow alchemist and doctor to King Charles II, Becher, representing himself as a mining expert, was commissioned by Prince Rupert and John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, to inspect coal and tin mines, first in Scotland and afterwards in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. Becher was accompanied by Dr. Friedrik Hayn, a mining inspector from Gotha in Germany. The ship that carried them to Scotland was unable to set sail for four weeks because of a bad storm. During this time Becher penned his autobiography, 'Foolish Wisdom and Wise Folly' (Narrische Weisheit und weisse Narrheit) that was eventually published in 1682. It included many fantastic stories such as a heavy stone that could make the person that possessed it invisible and a claim that Count von Zinzendorf had shown him a method for making gold. In this book, Becher also made comments on some of his contemporaries, some flattering and some not so5.
5He reports that "Prince Rupert, however, instead of trying to harden iron into steel, made the iron soft and pliable so that it can be turned and can be made highly suitable for shooting. The prince has been granted a patent for this in England and is producing large amounts". The book criticizes Leibniz (who apparently had once stopped one of Becher's impractical alchemical experiments in Hanover). He makes fun of Leibniz as someone who "claims to have invented a coach capable of traveling from Amsterdam to Hanover in six hours".
From Scotland Becher and company made the long journey to Cornwall where they remained for twelve months. While staying in Falmouth he wrote Chymisches Laboratorium (published in 1680) and when he reached Truro he wrote Alphabetum Minerale (published in 1689, seven years after his death). The third part of Alphabetum Minerale entitled 'Tripus hermeticus fatidicus' is dedicated to Robert Boyle who, Becher explains, is "not the least of the esteemers of my Physica Subterranea".
When Becher arrived in London in 1680 he was helped by Edmund Dickinson, who introduced Becher at court and, at his own expense, provided him with a laboratory. On 19th August 1681, Becher, along with Henry Serle (a wealthy Member of the Lincoln's Inn Council), had the honour of being granted the first English invention patent for "a new way of making pitch and tarre out of pit coale, never before used by any other6." Becher demonstrated how coke and tar could be obtained from both peat and coal in front of the Court at Windsor and at Robert Boyle house. He is credited with being the first to discover coal tar7.
6Printed in a 1681 edition of "A New News-book or, occurrences forreign and domestick, impartially related" was the following notice of Patent No. 214. "His Majesty has been pleased to grant to Dr. John Joachim Becher, and Henry Searle Esq., the sole Benefit of making Pitch and Tarr out of Sea-Coal, and they are in such a forwardness, that several Furnaces are now setting up nigh the Water side for that Purpose; and they say, that they shall be able to rend the same half as cheap as at present: And likewise the same Gentlemen have the sole Benefit of a new Invented Engine, for Raising and throwing out of water, in very great quantities, from the Extreamest parts of Pits and Mines".
7Becher's description of his discovery reads as follows: "In Holland they have peat, and in England pit-coals; neither of them is very good for burning, be it in rooms or for smelting. But I have found a way, not merely to burn both kinds into good coal (coke) which not any more smokes nor stinks, but with their flame to smelt equally well as with wood, so that a foot of such coal makes flames 10 feet long. That I have demonstrated with pit-coal at the Hague, and here in England at Mr. Boyles', also at Windsor on the large scale. In this connection it is also noteworthy that, equally as the Swedes make their tar from firwood, I have here in England made from pit-coal a sort of tar which is equal to the Swedish in every way, and for some operations is even superior to it. I have made proof of it on wood and on ropes, and the proof has been found right, so that even the king has seen a specimen of it, which is a great thing in England, and the coal from which the tar has been taken out is better for use than before."
True to form Becher sent a book to the Royal Society in London 'De nouva tempori dimetiendi Ratione et Accurata horologior constructione theoria & experiential' that attempted divert the discovery of the pendulum clock from Christiaan Huygens. The book, which was dedicated to the Royal Society, was presented by the secretary, Henry Oldenburg, on 25th February 1680. Robert Hooke's minutes of this meeting note that John Flamsteed reported that he had looked through the book but he did not see much to recommend it. He thought that Becher should have applied his ideas to the barometer8.
8Interestingly, the minutes of the following week, 4th March 1680, note that the members felt that not all John Flamsteed's comments concerning Becher's book had been recorded in the minutes. John Flamsteed promised to provide a full written account for the next day.
Becher did not endear himself to the Royal Society and his attempt to be elected as a member met with failure. Only Robert Boyle and Edmund Dickinson seemed to tolerate Becher. Boyle and Becher had exchanged letters over the years and Boyle had corresponded with Becher after reading 'Physica Subterranea'. When Becher published 'Magnalia Naturae9' in 1680, Boyle was one of the dedicatees. The title page includes "published at the request of several curious and ingenious, esp. Mr. Boyle". The book was an account of the life of a friar called Wenceslaus Seilerus (aka Seyler) who, allegedly, made a powder of projection (a substance similar to the Philosopher's Stone) at the Emperor's court in Vienna10 . Seilerus escaped from the court with a large sample of the projection powder and Becher's narrative follows his exploits while wielding the powerful powder. This book would not have impressed Boyle at all - it was too much like story-telling and lacked any alchemical detail.
9Addition to title: Been Lately Expos'd to Publick Sight and Sale. Being a True and Exact Account of the Manner how Wenceslaus Seilerus the Late Famous Projection-maker, at the Emperours Court, at Vienna Came By, and Made Away with a Very Great Quantity of Pouder of Projection, by Projecting with it Before the Emperor, and a Thousand Witnesses, Selling It, &c. for Some Years Past. Published at the Request, and for the Satisfaction of Several Curious and Ingenious, Especially of Mr. Boyl, c. By One who was Not Only a Ey-witness in the Affair, But Also Concern'd as a Commissioner by the Emperor for the Examen of it.
10Becher was an examiner of two of Silerus's projections that probably took place in 1674
Not long before he died Becher worked on a design for a portable furnace11 . He sold three of these at £12 each (a total of around £7500 in today's money). Edmund Dickenson, Robert Boyle and Prince Rupert were the purchasers. Becher's last publication in 1682 was 'Chymischer Glücks-Hafen, Oder Grosse Chymische Concordantz Und Collection, Von funffzehen hundert Chymischen Processen' (1500 chemical processes...) included a method for making the Philosopher's Stone and another for turning lead into gold.
11'Tripus Hermeticus Fatidicus, seu I Laboratorium Portabile' (Frankfurt 1689)
Becher is reported to have died in London in 1882 (although some researchers believe that he found a patron in Germany and returned there where he died in 1685). He is often said to have died in poverty and, if this is the case and he did die in London, it is hard to imagine how he lost his money and his patronage in so short a time. Friedrik Hayn, (the man who believed Becher had taken ten years off of his true age), is said to have attended his funeral and Becher was supposedly buried in the chancel of St James in the Field (now St James's, Piccadilly). However, no record of his death was ever found, either in the archives of St James in the Field or in the surrounding churches. There are even suggestions that Becher faked his own death.
Whether Becher died aged forty seven or fifty seven will probably never be resolved, similarly his final resting place will no doubt remain a mystery. He is reported as having converted back to Protestantism sometime before his death. Likewise, it is unknown if Maria Veronika Becher and her children ever joined her husband in England, although some sources put her daughter as a domestic in London a few years after Becher's death. What we do know, from a letter written by her brother, Philipp von Hörnigk, to Leibniz in 1688, is that she was living in Würzburg. One of her sons was in a workhouse in Munich and her youngest son was in Vienna. Philipp von Hörnigk told Leibniz that he and helped his sister and her youngest son financially but he had warned her that, should she ever turn up on his doorstep, he would kick her into the street. Philipp von Hörnigk considered that his sister and her children had been ungrateful for the help they had received from him.
The following quotation is attributed to Johann Joachim Becher: ... chemists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapor, soot and flame, poisons and poverty, yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly, that [I'd die before I'd] change places with the Persian King.
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