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.
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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.