Painting of Hennig Brand discovering phosphorus

Open science, phosphorus, and economic impact

Image: The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (1771), by Joseph Wright, illustrating Hennig Brand’s discovery of phosphorus. Collection of The Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

Warning: long-ish. If you like, skip the middle section (history of the discovery of phosphorus) or skip the opening and conclusion (open science vs. commercialization). It’s kind of two posts in one.


Last week I was working on a grant proposal, to an agency called the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation.  I was feeling a bit soiled, since NBIF is unabashedly about industrial innovation and commercialization, and I’ve always fancied myself a basic/pure/curiosity-driven scientist*.  A move into more applied work (mostly forestry-related) is new for me.  I really struggled to write the section about how the intellectual property generated by my proposal would be commercialized – partly because I just don’t have any interest in doing so, and partly because (as a consequence) I really don’t know how.

One thing was obvious, though: there was some tension between my interest in the work becoming a series of scientific papers and NBIF’s interest in the work becoming a revenue stream for a New Brunswick company.  But of course there’s nothing new under the sun – and this tension reminded me that a while ago I promised to tell the story of Hennig Brand and the discovery of phosphorus.  If you don’t see the connection, indulge me in some history for a bit – it’s pretty interesting – and I promise that I’ll get back to the tension between open science and commercialization.


Phosphorus was discovered in the late 17th century, and the story is obscured to some degree by time and by the fact that the discovery belonged to the world of alchemy.  Alchemy and alchemists were generally secretive.  As a rule, alchemists weren’t trying to develop the science of chemistry (although in the end, that’s what happened) but rather to penetrate Nature’s secrets in order to gain power and income.  The famous goal of transmuting common substances into gold was an obvious way to attain both.  Many alchemists pursued that goal; one of them was Hennig Brand.

Brand was a soldier who became a merchant and an alchemist.  He was convinced that the key to transmutation would lie in human urine (no, I don’t understand why either).  In 1669, he discovered that putting urine through a complex series of boiling, separation, heating, and recombination steps yielded a white, waxy substance that gave off a pale green glow.  Brand named his discovery “cold fire” (kaltes feuer); others took to calling it phosphorus mirabilis, or “miraculous light-bringer”.

Like many important discoveries, phosphorus was essentially an accident.  A happy accident: while it wasn’t the gold he was looking for, Brand was convinced he could commercialize his discovery. Brand’s approach was to show off his cold fire, but to keep the process by which he made it a secret.  This combination gave the process value, although accounts differ as to how he extracted that value.  In one version of the story, he sold the process to another alchemist, Johann Krafft, for 200 thalers (as near as I can tell, about 2 years’ wages for a skilled labourer at the time).  Krafft had been alerted to the discovery by his friend Johann Kunckel, but betrayed Kunckel by swooping in to secure the secret for himself.  In another version of the story, however, Krafft and Kunckel visited Brand together and offered to help him sell the secret to royalty for a high price – with both learning the secret themselves in the process.

Whichever story is true, Krafft traveled widely demonstrating the properties of phosphorus to various royal houses, in the hopes of securing a stream of phosphorus-based revenue.  And soon revenue did flow – in the form of a monthly stipend from Duke Johann Friedrich of Brunswick-Lüneburg.  The Duke paid the stipend at the urging of his Privy Councillor and librarian Gottfried Leibniz (yes, that Leibniz), who was to be given the secret to the process in return.  This didn’t make Brand rich, but it likely made him comfortable.

How long did the secret of phosphorus-making stay secret?  It’s not at all clear. Brand sold his secret at least once and likely twice (to Krafft and to Friedrich/Leibniz).  It’s claimed to have been published in the Histoire de l’Académie royale des Sciences in 1682 and in a chemistry textbook by Nicolas Lémery in 1683**.  If it was, neither publication had much impact, because in 1737 a stranger apparently offered to sell the secret process to the French Academy of Sciences.  This offer was accepted, and the method published in the Mémoires de l’Académie Royale des Sciences later that year. Now anyone could make phosphorus (well, anyone with access to alchemical equipment and a lot of urine).  This part of science had become open***.

Brand intended his secret to spread only to those he sold it to – but you can guess how that worked out.  In England, Krafft showed off Brand’s phosphorus to the English court of Charles II, and also to Robert Boyle.  Boyle was captivated, and asked for the method that produced it.  Krafft refused, at least according to Boyle, who claimed that Krafft told him only that the main source of phosphorus was “somewhat that belonged to the body of man”.  But before long, Boyle had worked out a process so that he, too, could extract phosphorus from urine (some sources suggest Boyle sent his assistant Ambrose Godfrey-Hanckwitz to Hamburg to see if Brand would let anything slip).  Boyle wasn’t doing anything illegal (because Brand kept the process secret rather than seeking patent protection), but at least in Brand’s eyes there was skullduggery involved.

Boyle doesn’t seem to have been terribly interested in commercializing his discovery, although in 1680 he did demonstrate his invention of the match (a sulphur-coated splinter struck against phosphorus-coated paper).  It would be the 1830s before matches were refined (and safe) enough for commercial success.  Boyle’s assistant Hanckwitz, though, became very wealthy manufacturing and selling phosphorus in bulk.  Brand’s discovery had made someone rich – it just wasn’t Brand.


So as I engage with more applied work, and write grants to agencies that like commercialization, what lessons can I draw from Brand and Boyle and from the discovery of phosphorus?  I have two.

First, it’s clear that commercialization and open science are in some tension, but they’re not completely incompatible.  All Brand’s efforts to keep his process secret may have delayed phosphorus’s integration into science, but not for all that long:  whether by skullduggery or ingenuity (probably both), Boyle and others got the job done.  And there are clearly paths that allow both commercialization and disclosure: Hanckwitz, for instance, made his fortune manufacturing phosphorus even after the process had been published.  I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, of course.  There’s plenty of more recent precedent for the coexistence of publication and profit (Xerox PARC being an example).  That’s not at all to say I want science to be done only, or even substantially, for profit; but the profit motivation can expand science.  The trick, of course, is to find ways for it to expand science rather than having it displace curiosity-driven work.  That’s why I’m so disturbed by the trend for granting agencies to show growth in industry-related programs while cutting or flatlining curiosity-based programs (yes, NSERC, I’m looking at you).

Second, reading more deeply into the phosphorus story made me realize that “commercialization” isn’t as one-dimensional as I’d thought.  If you discover phosphorus (for example), you can keep your process a secret and manufacture and sell the phosphorus (Hanckwitz); or you can sell the process itself (Brand); or you can simply disclose the process and let entrepreneurs commercialize it (Boyle, I think, although he didn’t end up spreading the information very far).  The disclosure path is what appeals to me****.

I’ve talked before, in a rather different context, about the notion that science works well when done by teams, with each team member working from their strengths and to their interests, and the team tapping into the synergy that results.  We’re about to find out, therefore, what my commercialization-happy agency thinks of proposals that suggest that a scientist will do science, publish all the results, and let entrepreneurs or industry do the commercialization as they will.  That may sound naïve to you (which would be only natural, as in business matters I am naïve) – but it is faithful to my synergy-in-teams idea.  The downside to my open disclosure model, presumably, is that no single company would be offered exclusive use of any IP, and that might retard commercialization.  I don’t have enough business background to know if that’s true.  But I do know that the rationale for patents that grant monopoly is to incentivize the research that precedes commercialization; when that work has already been done, presumably the case for openness is stronger.  But those of you who know this kind of thing better should educate me in the Replies.

Well, that was a journey, wasn’t it?  From my desk in 2016, to Brand’s boiling urine in 1669, and back again (fortunately, without the odour).  I learned on the journey; I hope you did too.

© Stephen Heard ( December 20, 2016

The phosphorus history here is drawn largely from the following two sources.  They aren’t new, but they’re packed full of information.

  • Weeks, Mary E. 1932. The discovery of the elements. II. Elements known to the alchemists. J. Chemical Education 9:11-21.
  • Weeks, Mary E. 1933. The discovery of the elements. XXI. Supplementary note on the discovery of phosphorus.  J. Chemical Education 10:302-306

*^I’m aware that the way I wrote this paragraph suggests a value judgment, with “pure” science held above applied science (by which I admit to feeling “soiled”).  But it’s an internal value judgment – it’s about what kinds of science interest me.  If your science is primarily applied, I can and do respect what you do.  It just isn’t what interests me, and that’s OK – just as it’s OK if what I do doesn’t interest you.

**^I haven’t tracked down either supposed publication. This blog is free, and you get what you pay for.

***^Although within half a dozen years, the method was obsolete: in 1743, the German chemist Andreas Marggraf published a much better protocol.  In 1774, the Swedish chemist Johann Gahn found a way to extract phosphorus from bones instead of urine (and the phosphorus community, one presumes, heaved a collective sigh of relief).

****^Maybe I’d change my tune if I had intellectual property worth millions, but as an ecologist, believe me, I don’t.


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