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Serendipity and Phosphorus – “A Short History of Nearly Everything” – Bill Bryson

November 28th, 2010 · No Comments · Science

Perhaps nothing better typifies the strange and often accidental nature of chemical science in its early days than a discovery made by a German named Hennig Brand in 1675. Brand became convinced that gold could somehow be distilled from human urine. (The similarity of color seems to have been a factor in his conclusion.) He assembled fifty buckets of human urine, which he kept for months in his cellar. By various recondite processes, he converted the urine first into a noxious paste and then into a translucent waxy substance. None of it yielded gold, of course, but a strange and interesting thing did happen. After a time, the substance began to glow. Moreover, when exposed to air, it often spontaneously burst into flame.

The commercial potential for the stuff—which soon became known as phosphorus, from Greek and Latin roots meaning “light bearing”—was not lost on eager businesspeople, but the difficulties of manufacture made it too costly to exploit. An ounce of phosphorus retailed for six guineas—perhaps five hundred dollars in today’s money—or more than gold.

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