The Histories Hidden in the Periodic Table
From poisoned monks and nuclear bombs to the “transfermium wars,” mapping the atomic world hasn’t been easy.
The story of the fifteenth element began in Hamburg, in 1669. The unsuccessful glassblower and alchemist Hennig Brandt was trying to find the philosopher’s stone, a mythical substance that could turn base metals into gold. Instead, he distilled something new. It was foamy and, depending on the preparation, yellow or black. He called it “cold fire,” because it glowed in the dark. Interested parties took a look; some felt that they were in the presence of a miracle. “If anyone had rubbed himself all over with it,” one observer noted, “his whole figure would have shone, as once did that of Moses when he came down from Mt. Sinai.” Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, put some on his hand and noted how “mild and innocent” it seemed. Another scientist saw particles in it twinkling “like little stars.”
At first, no one could figure out what the Prometheus of Hamburg had stolen. After one of Brandt’s confidants provided a hint—the main ingredient was “somewhat that belong’d to the Body of Man”—Boyle deduced that he and his peers had been smearing themselves with processed urine. As the Cambridge chemist Peter Wothers explains in his new history of the elements, “Antimony, Gold, and Jupiter’s Wolf” (Oxford), Brandt’s recipe called for a ton of urine. It was left out in buckets long enough to attract maggots, then distilled in hot furnaces, creating a hundred and twenty grams of “cold fire.” Brandt believed that, if he could collect enough of this substance, he might be able to create the philosopher’s stone. In 1678, the Duke of Saxony asked him to collect a hundred tons of urine from a garrison of soldiers and render it into what Boyle and others soon started to call phosphorus—Latin for “light-bearer.”
The soapy phosphorus that Brandt cooked up was a curiosity. But, in England, Boyle began producing it in a purer, more solid form, which turned out to be highly flammable. Another scientist toying with Boyle’s phosphorus found that, “if the Privy Parts be therewith rubb’d, they will be inflamed and burning for a good while after.” Boyle, for his part, wondered whether it could be harnessed as a starter for gunpowder. (His assistant, the apothecary Ambrose Godfrey, set his head on fire and burned “two or three great holes in his breeches” while investigating the substance.) The phosphorus industry grew throughout the eighteenth century, in part because physicians wrongly believed that it had medicinal value. In the eighteen-hundreds, match producers found that wood splints tipped with phosphorus were less dangerous than their sulfur-coated predecessors; not long afterward, the discovery that electric furnaces could extract phosphorus from ore at a large scale led to the development of explosives. In the Second World War, in what Wothers calls “a tragic twist of fate,” Hamburg, Brandt’s home town, was destroyed by Allied bombers dropping phosphorus munitions.