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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)

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

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

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




Hanckwitz never named this Alchemist and there are those who believe that he was Johann Joachim Becher. It is easy to understand why. Becher was in England from 1679 having left Holland in a hurry. It is very likely that Becher's wife would have joined her husband in Holland and travelled to England from there. However, this is likely to be pure co-incidence since Becher's circumstances and contacts in England were well above those of Hanckwitz's unwelcome guest.

Although Johann Becher was in London between 1680 and 1682, he had influential patrons, including Dickinson and Boyle, he had been presented at court and he had worked for Prince Rupert and John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale. It is highly unlikely that Hanckwitz's unwelcome alchemist and Johann Becher are one of the same. Likewise, although not improbable, Hanckwitz's youth and his previous employment in London would not indicate that he had had any contact with Becher before he started working for Boyle. The only hint that Hanckwitz gives to the alchemist's identity is that he was a "Crosey-Crucian" (Rosicrucian) and there is no documented evidence that Becher was ever in this sect. Finally, in Philosophical Transactions Number 428 (April, May, June 1733) An Account of the Experiments upon the Phosphorus Urinae, Hanckwitz makes reference to one of Dr. Becher's experiments - brick-earth mixed with any fat or oil and calcinated in the fire, he hath produced iron; it is highly unlikely that Hanckwitz would have used this example if Becher had been his unwelcome lodger.





Advertisment from 1706

Ambrose Godfrey Hanckwitz,
Chemist in London,
Southampton Street,
Covent Garden
continues faithfully to prepare all sorts of remedies, chemical and galenic. He hopes his friends will continue their favours. Good cordials can be procured at his establishment, as well as Royal English drops, and other articles, such as powders of Kent, Zell and Contrajerva, Cordial red powder, Gaskoins powder, with and without bezoar, English smelling salts, true Glaubers salt, Epsom salt, and volatile salt of ammonia, stronger than the former. Human skull and hartshorn, essence of Ambergris, volatile essence of lavender, musk and citron, essence of viper, essence for the hair, vulnerary balsam, commendeur, balsam for apoplexy, red spirit of purgative cochlear, spirit of white cochliaria and others. Honey water, lavender of water of two kinds, Queen of Hungary water, orange-flower water, and arque-busade. For the information of the curious he is the only one in London who makes inflammable phosphorus which can be preserved in water. Phosphorus of Bolognian Stone, flowers of phosphorus, black phosphorus, and that made with acid oil and other varieties. All unadulterated. Every description of good drugs he sells, wholesale and retail.



Southampton Street plan

Hanckwitz's residence from 1706. His house was situated at 31 Southampton Street. At 3 Southampton Court, Maiden Lane was the entrance to his laboratory.



18th Century etchings showing the inside of Hanckwitz's laboratory.





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

Just less that two hundred years after Hennig Brand produced his 'kalte feuer' (cold fire) for the first time, Joseph Ince wrote an article about the discovery of phosphorus and a biography of Ambroise Godfrey Hanckwitz for the Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions. Ince's account is published in three parts and in separate editions of the journal in 1858.

Sadly the original documents that Ince was able to consult have since been lost, leaving Ince as the only source of much of the information relating to Ambroise Godfrey Hanckwitz.

Assuming that Ince accurately recorded Hanckwitz's own words from the original sources he had access to, it has to be said that Hanckwitz possessed a elaborate style of writing that often makes his text difficult to follow.

There is a link below to a PDF of the full transcript of Ince's article with notes added (this link opens in a new window).

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

Below I have chosen to extract only those sections written by Hanckwitz that relate to his "An Apology and Letter touching a Crosey-Crucian". This story seems to be a confession as well as a warning to Hanckwitz's sons not to be as gullible as he had been in his youth. (The page numbers refer to the PDF.)

Godfrey describes an alchemist as

(Line 490) ".... an eager and indefatigable searcher and pursuer of everything and in everything that relates to chemistry, whether seemingly or really. Though never superficial, yet must he try everything; and as that which is foolishly called the philosopher's stone is one branch that relates to chemistry, and as that deceitful bewitching art is so penned and couched that it is able to put a diligent man in chemistry to a stand and thinking; and if by chance he is taken with it, and with that sort of men, he can hardly leave it till he has had his bellyful of vexation and charges".

And his reason for relating this story

(Line 503) "to rehearse and to remind some passages of life, what folly one is able to commit in younger days before one has brought wit with charges and trouble".


(Line 508) "do we not find the world even bewitched with mistakes soon (eager) to dig each other's sink and grave instead of examining first, though they little know how near they are to it themselves, and it is almost no crime to say, the world is like a great Bedlam; people are all mad". "But since Providence has planted us in a reasonable country, God be thanked, where there is freedom and liberty",

And his warning

(Line 518) "lest my sons should one time or other be of that bewitching number whilst they are yet novices and green, I leave this for their veu (view) on purpose to frighten them into discretion, to free them from that plaguy people that swarm to draw people into those nonsensical fancies by their fantastical and visionary persuasions."

Robert Boyle took a great interest in alchemy and he apparently arranged for a German alchemist to come to London and work for him. This is likely to have been in late 1679 or early 1680. Since Hanckwitz, one of his assistants at the time, was also German, Boyle gave him the responsibility of looking after the new arrival. The young Hanckwitz was quickly drawn under the spell of the Alchemist.

(Line 572) "I was wrapped up .... and big with expectations of great things, so that I devoted myself wholly to him, placed all my happiness, life and death, in him, and infused in me an excess of desire to see once in God's time also the same sight he had seen. (I may well say two fools well met)".

The Alchemist was lodged with Hanckwitz and his wife in Chandos Street, Covent Garden. Mrs. Hanckwitz was none to pleased with this arrangement but her houseguest took quite a hold on her husband.

(Line 596) "What burden was it how to preserve peace with my wife to see these passages, and how to keep him in my master's favour, and how to procure him money continually, which was the continual outcry, a reasonable creature would not have wished the life and torment to a Turk; and none can be sensible of it unless he that has undergone the experience: and what all this was for? for nothing but poor ridiculous chimeras and secrets (as he called it) as I would at any time sell for sixpence. And had I continued to him never so long, neither Mr. Boyle nor I should have seen effected anything what he proposed and imbibed me with, as you shall hear. For before he could have is power on me to serve his turn, his business was to bring me first firm over his side that I might be taken with his principles of revealed religion, and likewise to the art he pretended to, to excite my love for both; then he thought he could do with a young fool (as I was then) what he pleased, so he took pains according to engage and influence me at first into certain religious notions as he called it, viz. Popedom, Lutherdom and Calvinism - and all these successive discourses at last terminated into illuminations and visions."

Hanckwitz had the task of reporting to Boyle on the Alchemist's progress, of which there was very little. The Alchemist put this down to the fact that he was not able to concentrate on the task in hand while his wife was still on the Continent. Hanckwitz got Boyle to agree to pay for her passage to England, along with her daughter.

(Line 629) "By whose consent I told him (the sophister) to fetch his wife, since as she got (her living) there by spinning, she might as well spin here, and Mr. Boyle would be at the charges (as he was). And he did go and come with his wife, and a grown up daughter he had, and I was the continual messenger and agent between them, and thought myself the happiest creature in the world to come to such preferment as to be the book and favour of this great man and to partake of his philosophy.

So in he comes from Holland bag and baggage again, and as I thought I saw an angel; lodged him for a while for want of a room (you know what a little house I had) in my bedchamber in Chandos Street, along with me and my wife all in one room, being then a poor beginner, and a servant too: and because of that, the house though but little was filled with the incumbrance of lodgers (till I had provided lodgings for them elsewhere). You may think what patience I had, but I got him in a little time lodgings in a little household himself at Mr. Kinit's.

I was caution for the rent by my master Boyle's directions, and money I brought from time to time, and then all was well, and there was built some fiddling furnace, enough to make one laugh; then there was this and that delay to go on, and I do not know how long and no work to be seen. And though when I dunned, he durst not throw the pearl before the swine (as he said) so soon yet, yet patience - we thought better opinion of us will come in time if his work does but go on in the meanwhile. But the structure of the furnace and the other chemical contrivances easily denoted the consequences, even his ordering of work and manipulations. At this famous going on must now and then be reported to worthy master from time to time, what news etc.? and what has been done? and what have you seen? being continually the query: continually eager, etc., desirous to news to hear and inquire. So I let you judge whether I did not begin to be bravely teased and haired out of my life and wits on both sides; one eager to see and hear (because he paid for it), and the other continually craving and teasing money and nothing to be seen for it, but extreme simple doings and foolery, a shame to relate. So discontents begun. I was reflected on and tormented by the projector, yet I strove to keep him in Mr. Boyle's favour as well as I could. Then I had in my own house by this projector's directions, three things at work in a digesting furnace, viz. the resuscitation of plants, the separation of Sulphur in animals (viz. birds) and the mercurification of lead (as he called these things). The rehearsal of which, the work, the fetching of it, and where to fetch it, and when to fetch it (viz. the plant) and how to work it, would make a comical relation had I room here in a letter.

Item - Though Mr. Boyle paid everyone to a tee, yet knew well enough how to bestow money, how to limit gifts and not be flush, so they began to slacken.

Item - Was mistrusted by the projector whether he had all what Mr. Boyle bestowed, for he could scarce persuade himself that such a rich man as Mr. Boyle should slacken his purse. But God knows my heart; and therein I do not sin that I testify it with God to my best knowledge that he had all, and seven pounds over and above Mr. Boyle's gift out of my own salary.

Item - And when by direction I began to work in my house, his lesson was, here is need of regeneration work, self-denial and to be very good, etc. All which was very well ordered, and good discourse for so great and wonderful a work, if he had but been the person to teach it, because says he, we shall soon after this digestion, come to evaporating of principles. Adding however this flattery to me, that he saw in me as prognosticated, good principles, and the performing of great things; but when all these schoolings proved abortive, it was easy for him to lay unregeneracy at my door".

Hanckwitz was caught in a difficult situation between his master, Boyle, who wanted news about the Alchemist's progress and the Alchemist and his family who wanted more money and seemed convinced that the money Boyle gave Hanckwitz for them was not all going into their pockets.

(Line 721) "I could spare no more .... but scarce and bare enough for myself, yet what I could spare mist be attacked now and then, for which I had my wife upon my back, and Mr. Clayton a minister, and Doctor Moulins1 at my house, depending for want of some trade upon my salary: and no shame for me that at that time Nihilum Album was my beginning. Yet in the midst of this (though he knew my mean condition very well), his attacks were continually upon me, and he even sent his wife to me at my door, who scolded in the German tongue and made people stare, yet raised a heap of people to my great trouble and prejudice, saying you are my ruin, you brought me over, or else I was well in Holland; and this railing was by his consent, and it was then he began to question my fidelity, whether I delivered all what Mr. Boyle gave. I was now teased almost out of my life with the continual song, money, money, sometimes he, and sometimes his wife, a terrible bawling creature. She followed my wife once in the street with scolding, spitting at her, and exclaiming, though, thank God, all in German, that the people understood not, but scandalous indeed it was, only the best of it was that she was not understood.

1Probably Dr. Lewis (Louis) de Moulin, brother of Peter du Moulin who was tutor to Boyle's nephews.

I let you judge what condition my poor wife was in to such an unusual attack; then her relations and other acquaintances of my wife came upon me, and the compliment was then, you fool, you blockhead etc., why do you not forsake the process-monger? how can you bear all this? but he had so bewitched me that all these flung one in no disorder or passion, but only in grief and shame, though I am a passionate fool enough otherwise.

Item. - A letter was writ by this sophister to Mr. Boyle, superabounding I suppose of complaints, and he brought it himself; and to make the address to Mr. Boyle the more authentic, joined with it some curiosity in a box. But my worthy Mr. Boyle had been informed of the passages and my misfortunes by Dr. Moulins and others what was the matter, and would not accept either the letter or box, but excused it civilly; upon which the sophister judged that that might be likewise my doings, his passion increased then to that height, that his exclaimings would have frightened others as well as myself, railing now that I had made him odious to Mr. Boyle. I was a devil and a monster, etc., and unless God was merciful to me I was in a damnable state, and so forth. I was now given up to Satan, and nothing I found but money could reclaim or redeem me from it again (of which I had little enough indeed). But I being still much wrapped in him, all was not able to move me to revenge, or passion, but was patient and silent, thinking the fury might be over at last. So I took occasion then to consult him as a physician, and mentioned no other matters and asked his advice for one sick in my family. But it was plain enough that he by that time expected no further benefit of me, and answered, I know you not. Whom man binds on earth (says he) is bound in heaven? And whatever I argued to make him change his discourse, he went on in that way, looking frightful upon me, seeing anger and fury in his face, I neither scolded him again nor aggravated, but took it as if a dog had bit me. His wife herself seeing him so, pulled him by the sleeve, saying, honey, heart, dear! Etc., but he then went on railing the faster, saying to me, get you gone, Satan. So I found, God be blest, that I had paid now full prenticeship to meddle with Rosicrucians2 and madmen. This is the fruits of meddling with process-mongers. Thinking then that they have haunted and followed me a great deal, I will save myself henceforth from such like torments, and that has so much charges and trouble in it too; for I found ever that their society and associating with them, terminates only in vexation and trouble, because their business is only to draw money from you, and if they do not succeed, woe to you. But God be merciful unto his soul and unto us all. He is gone - and how soon we may God knows. I wish him eternal rest."

2The Rosicrucians were a religious sect, who flourished in the early part of the seventeenth century: they blended the mysteries of the Christian religion with the several processes of alchemy. Their symbol was a cross of four red roses, hence the mane - others derive the word from a founder called Rosenkreutz.


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