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Chemistry Index

Chemical Element Identification Timeline
History of Phosphorus : Introduction and Timeline

History of Science and Technology Index

Characters involved in the Phosphorus Story

Hennig Brand (1630 - c. 1710)
Johann Kunckel (1630 - 1703)
Johann Daniel Krafft (1624 - 1697) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716)
Johann Joachim Becher (1635 - c. 1682)
Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691) and his Assistants

Transcripts of Publications (1677 - 1853)

Aerial Noctiluca : Robert Boyle 1680

Icy Noctiluca : Robert Boyle 1682

An Account of four sorts of factitious
Shining Substances : Robert Boyle 1677

A Paper of the Honourable Robert Boyle's,
Opened Since His Death (1692)

Extracts from John Evelyn's Diary 1681 and 1685

Experiments made with the liquid and of the solid
Phosphorus : Frederick Slare 1681

Extract from Experiments of the Luminous
Qualities of Amber : Samuel Wall 1708

On the Discovery of Phosphorus and a
Biography of Ambrose Godfrey
Hanckwitz : Joseph Ince 1853

An Extract from "An Account of some
Experiments upon the Phosphorus Urinæ"
by Ambrose Godfrey Hanckwitz 1731

Other Information

The Chemical Equations involved in the Luminescence of Phosphorus


Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle


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A Short Memorial of Some Observations made upon an Artificial Substance, that shines without any precedent Illustration.

Johann Daniel Krafft had already demonstrated 'his' phosphorus at the English court, in the presence of King Charles II. He paid his first visit to Robert Boyle's residence on 15th September 1677. A PDF of the full transcript of Boyle's account of Krafft's two visits can be can be accessed through this link that opens in a new window.

Some Observations made upon an Artificial Shining Substance : Robert Boyle 1677

The following are extracts from Boyle's report and the line references are to the PDF. Boyle calls Kraft 'the Artist'.

(Line 12) "The company being met, the Artist took out of a pretty large box he had brought with him, divers glass vessels and laid them in order on the table. The largest of them was a sphere of glass, which I guessed to be four or five inches in diameter, being hollow and entire, save that in one place there was a little hole, at that time stoppered with sealing wax, whereat to pour in the liquor, which seemed to me to be about two spoonfuls or somewhat more, and to look like muddy water made a little reddish with the brick-dust or some other powder of that colour, he also took out of his box three or four little pipes of glass sealed, or otherwise stoppered at both ends, being each of them somewhat bigger than a swan's quill, and about five or six inches long, and having at one end a small fragment or two of that matter that was to shine in the dark."

Boyle was frustrated by the fact that he was unable to see what was going on. He had invited a good number of Royal Society members who gathered around blocking his view. This and his poor eyesight hampered his vision.

(Line 34) ...."he had in a small crystalline button bottle, a little lump of matter, of which he seemed to make much more account than of all the liquors, and which he took out for a few moments to let us look upon it, whereby I saw that it was a consistent body, that appeared of a whitish colour, and seemed not to exceed a couple of ordinary peas or the kernel of a hazel nut in bigness, some other things it is possible Mr Kraft took out of his box, but neither I or (for ought I know) others of the company took notice of them, partly because of his haste, and partly because the confused curiosity of many spectators in a narrow compass, kept me from being able to observe things as particularly and deliberately as I would gladly have done, and as the occasion deserved. Which advertisement may I fear be but too applicable to a great part of the following narrative."

However, Boyle did manage to get a good look at the small piece of solid phosphorus that Krafft had brought with him.

(Line 81) "....a button-bottle, wherein was contained the dry substance which the Artist chiefly valued, as that which had continued luminous about these two years, and having held that vial long in my hand, in the same position in reference to my eye, and looked attentively at it, I had the opportunity to observe (what I think none of the company did) that not only this stuff did in proportion to, its bulk, shine more vividly than the fluid substances, but that (which was the phenomenon I chiefly attended) though I could perceive no smoke or fumes ascend from the luminous matter, yet I could plainly perceive by a new and brisker light that appeared from time to time in a certain place bear the top of the glass, that there must be some kind of flashy motion in the matter that lay at the bottom, which was the cause of these little coruscations, if I may so call them."

Boyle must have been slightly concerned that his sister's Turkish carpet would finish with burn marks!

(Line 99) "The Artist having taken a very little of his consistent matter, and broken it into parts so minute, that I judged the fragments to be between twenty and thirty, he scattered them without any order about the carpet, where it was very delightful to see how vividly they shined; and that which made the spectacle more taking, especially to me, was this, that not only in the darkness that environed them, they seemed like fixed stars of the sixth or least magnitude, but twinkled also like them, discovering such a scintillation as that whereby we distinguish the fixed stars from most of the planets. And these twinkling sparks without doing any harm (that we took notice of) to the Turkish carpet they lay on, continued to shine for a good while, some of them remaining vivid enough until the candles being brought in again made them disappear."

And Krafft gave Boyle an even more intimate introduction to phosphorus:

(Line 143) "the Artist desired me to give him my hand, which when I had done, he rubbed partly upon the back of it, and partly on my cuff, some of his luminous matter, which as if it had been assisted by the warmth of my hand shone very vividly, and though I took not notice of anything upon my skin, that was either unctuous or rough, yet I often times tried in vain by rubbing it with my other hand to take it off, or manifestly diminish its splendour, and when I diverse times blew upon some of the smaller parts of it, though they seemed at the instant that my breath beat upon it, to be blown out, yet the tenacious parts were not really extinguished, but presently after recovered their former splendour. And all this while this light that was so permanent, was yet so mild and innocent that in that part of my hand where it was largely enough spread, I felt no sensible heat produced by it."

Krafft returned to see Boyle one week later on 22nd September specifically to repeat the failed attempt to light gunfire with phosphorus. This time Boyle was able to get a better look at the product.

(Line 177) ...."because no strangers were present, I had the fairer opportunity to view it, which I was able to do better by day light, than I had done by its own light, for when he had taken it with a new pen out of the liquor with which he kept it covered to, preserve it, I perceived it to be somewhat less than the nail of one of my fingers, and not much thicker than a shilling ...."

(Line 209) ...."Mr. Krafft put upon the tip of a quill, and having at a distance from the fire, very well dried and warmed some gun-powder upon another piece of paper, he laid that paper upon the ground, and then holding the quill upon it, as if it had been a match, within half a minute (by my guess) the powder took fire and blew up."

Boyle wanted Krafft to agree to placing a piece of the solid phosphorus in a vacuum to find out if it would continue to shine.

(Line 228) "This conjecture Mr. Krafft seemed much to approve of when I told him that the way I proposed to examine his noctiluca by, was to put a little of it into our pneumatic engine, and pump out the air, whose absence, if it were of the nature of other flames, would probably extinguish, or very much impair its light, but yet since he offered not to have the trial made; probably because he had but very little of his shining substance left, I thought it not civil to press him."

Boyle finishes his paper by referring to the 'Phosphorus Baldwinus' and his disappointment that Christoph Adolph Balduin had not yet published his method.

(Line 298) "I scarce question but other materials will be found capable of being made luminous by the same or the like operation, that is employed by Baldwinus, when that learned man shall think to communicate his way to the public."

(Line 316) ...."Thus far the communication of this excellent person, who it is hoped may be further prevailed with to communicate those other accurate observations, and curious researches he hath made concerning the light of the Bononian Stone and the Phosphorus Baldwini, which are indeed truly admirable, and very much differing from the usual processes of nature for the exhibiting of light."


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