Chemical Element: phosphorus

(Greek: phosphoros, "light bringer", "morning star"; glows brightly because of rapid oxidation; nonmetal)

Chemical-Element Information

Symbol: P
Atomic number: 15
Year discovered: 1669

Discovered by: Hennig Brand (died ca. 1692), an alchemist from Hamburg, Germany.

  • Of the substances chemists now consider to be elements, nine were known to the ancients.
  • These included seven metals: gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, lead, and mercury; and two nonmetals: carbon and sulfur.
  • Four more elements were probably known and were unmistakably described by the medieval alchemists: arsenic, antimony, bismuth, and zinc.
  • No one knows who first discovered any of these elements, nor when.
  • The situation changed when the German alchemist, Hennig Brand, began to search for something that would enable him to create gold; and for some reason, he thought he would find it in urine.
  • He did not find gold, but he did come up with a white waxy substance that glowed faintly in the air.
  • All of the elements discovered after 1669 can be attributed to a specific person and a specific time and Brand’s discovery of phosphorus is the first of which this can be said. [Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery by Isaac Asimov].
  • As stated earlier, phosphorus was discovered in 1669 by Hennig Brand, who prepared it from the residue of evaporated urine.
  • No less than 50-60 buckets were used per experiment, each of which required more than two weeks to complete.
  • News of the discovery soon spread around Germany.
  • At first, Brand didn’t disclose his method of producing phosphorus.
  • First, he sold the secret to Johann Kraft of Dresden, Germany.
  • The chemist Johann Kunckel tried to learn the secret process from Brand, but he could only find that urine had been used as the source of the phosphorus.
  • With this information, Kunckel was finally able, after many trials, to duplicate Brand’s accomplishment.
  • Kunckel also attempted to keep the process a secret and, like Brand and Kraft, tried at various times to sell details of the process.
  • Gottfried Leibniz, the German mathematician, then the librarian for Duke Johann Friedrich at Hanover, arranged a contract between Brand and the duke, under which Brand was to demonstrate his process and reveal his method.
  • It is easy to understand the widespread interest that was aroused in the 17th century by the discovery of such a remarkable substance as phosphorus.
  • A substance that glowed in the dark and flamed spontaneously when exposed to air was something startlingly new and mysterious.
  • It is unusual that an element so difficult to isolate should have been discovered through the unguided fumbling of an alchemist.
  • In the decades that followed 1680, methods for the preparation of phosphorus from various animal and vegetable materials were developed and, in some cases, published.
  • It was not until 1775, more than a hundred years after Brand’s discovery, that Carl Scheele published the much easier method of preparing the element from bones, which then became the chief raw material used as a source of phophorus.
  • Phosphorus is essential for both animal and vegetable life.
  • Man gets the phosphorus needed from compounds in the vegetables eaten.
  • Plants get it from the soil, principally from phosphates.
  • Phosphate is present in rocks and in the remains of organisms.
  • Phosphates are necessary to the growth of organisms and have extensive use in fertilizers.
  • Bread contains phosphates.

Name in other languages:

French: phosphore

German: Phosphor

Italian: fosforo

Spanish: fósforo

Information about other elements may be seen at this Chemical Elements List.

A special unit about words that include chemo-, chem- may be seen here.