Illustration of Phosphorus

1669 Phosphorus

The book of science

Tom Sharp

HamburgHennig Brand elements Illustration of Phosphorus


Could be Hennig Brand thought kidney stones were sympathetic with the philosopher’s stone that he tried to distill gold from urine . . . or could be the golden color of urine deceived him. At any rate, after letting it rot, evaporating it into a paste, heating the paste, discarding the salts (which included most of the phosphorus), mixing and reheating the rest, and cooling the vapors in water, he produced a white waxy material that glowed in the dark, actually ammonium sodium hydrogen phosphate.

Atomic number 15

Kept a secret much in demand phosphorus was a sensation. Brand sold the process to a guy in Dresden. Everyone wanted to know how to make it. Given hints Robert Boyle figured it out and improved the process. * Today it makes matches fertilizers explosives baking powder pesticides plasticizer flame retardants detergents water softener and toothpaste. * Needed by all living creatures, having a role in our genetic machinery and in the transport of energy.

Stuff that glows

Brand named it phosphorus mirabilis “miraculous bearer of light.” Reacting with oxygen, phosphorus emits light. * Radioluminescent phosphor excited by tritium on watch hands. * Happiness in your eyes but not that spooky green glow. * Moons, stars, nebulae.

Lack of phosphorus in the diet can result in hypophosphatemia, with neurological symptoms and so forth, but too much phosphorus isn’t good either. Vertebrates with teeth should appreciate that phosphorus is essential for growing bones and teeth enamel. Maybe that’s why my sweetheart’s teeth are so bright!

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