The history of phosphorus is largely a tale of people getting their hands dirty. Very, very dirty.
Featured above: The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus, a 1771 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby that portrays Hennig Brand’s historical experiment.
Take 2: Well, it finally happened: Technological disaster. You might notice that this episode is a little rough around the edges, and a little light on music. Basically, at the eleventh hour, my audio project got corrupted somehow, causing me to lose several hours of work. I had to redo the entire edit and frankly didn’t have the time to do as good a job as I did the first time around. My apologies for a somewhat less enjoyable listening experience.
More Unhappy Endings: Brand may have made a monumental scientific discovery, but it still wasn’t really what he was looking for. He wanted gold, after all.
Unfortunately, he never found it. After his discovery, he kept his formulation a secret, only selling it to other scientists when times got truly desperate. This actually led to other chemists, like Robert Boyle, receiving the credit for the discovery of phosphorus for many years until further documentation was uncovered, revealing where they learned the trick from.
A Small Box Of Crayons: White and red phosphorus are different allotropes of element 15, like how coal and diamond are different allotropes of carbon. White phosphorus is the one that Hennig Brand discovered in urine, and it’s the most unstable. Red phosphorus is a little more well-behaved, and black phosphorus is an extremely stable allotrope. A mixture of black and red phosphorus is sometimes called “Violet Phosphorus,” but is not actually a unique allotrope.
Recharging ATP: Respiration is really a pretty complicated phenomenon, and well outside the scope of this podcast. For an introductory look at what’s going on, though, Crash Course has this excellent video:
No Clever Subhead Here: Unlike chlorine gas, white phosphorus is a chemical weapon that still sees wartime use today, despite being at least as horrible. The United States admitted to the use of white phosphorus-based incendiary weapons in Fallujah in 2004, despite originally claiming (somewhat ludicrously) that white phosphorus was only used for “illumination.” The U.S. also used phosphorus-based incendiary weapons during Operation Desert Storm. The Israeli military used white phosphorus weapons against Palestinian civilians in Gaza in a “deliberate or reckless way” in 2009, and U.S.-led forces probably used those weapons in Syria at least as recently as 2017.
Too Grim: In Episode 7, we mentioned the successors to chlorine gas: Nerve gas, weapons that were even more frightening. These are also phosphorus-based weapons, but they’re not firebombs. They interfere with ATP’s mechanism of action, leading to paralysis and eventually suffocation due to an inability to inhale oxygen. It is a horrific way to die.
Sarin is one of these nerve agents, and in the early 1950s, the United Kingdom was running tests with the newly discovered substance at their labs in Porton Down. These tests often involved human subjects, including Ronald Maddison, a 20-year-old British soldier. The government told him that they were investigating cures for the common cold; what they actually did was pour a single drop of liquid sarin onto his skin.
He died in agony.
Tests at Porton Down involving the use of Sarin on British soldiers continued at least until the 1980s.
I didn’t want to include this story in the main episode, but I do find it gripping and worth knowing about. More details can be found in this Guardian article or in various books, including Ulf Schmidt’s Secret Science: A Century Of Poison Warfare And Human Experiments.
In Paradise Lost, John Milton’s 17th-century work of epic poetry, Lucifer is the name of the angel who leads a failed rebellion against God. He and his soldiers are cast into Hell, where he takes on his new name: Satan.
But he’s not presented as some leathery-winged beast. He has neither hooves nor horns, and isn’t the caricature of pure villainy that’s so common in modern pop culture. If anything, Milton’s Satan is a sympathetic character. He can even be read as kind of a tragic hero. Milton may have wanted his readers to reflect on just why they could find the literal Devil so unsettlingly relatable.1
Translated from Latin, Lucifer’s name means “light-bringer.” Today’s element, phosphorus, means the exact same thing in Greek. And, like the character from Paradise Lost, it’s a dangerous thing, is strongly associated with fire, and there’s more than a little phosphorus in all of us.
You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.
Today, we’re distilling information on phosphorus.
Ancient humans discovered several elementary substances in prehistoric times, like copper, gold, and carbon. But we don’t know who discovered those elements, and many of them probably have several discoverers from around the world.
But there’s a very clear point in history where that changed: Chronologically, phosphorus is the first element we can point to and say, “We know who discovered that.” That person was a German named Hennig Brand, and the story of his discovery is not quite like any other on the periodic table.
Brand was a German merchant from Hamburg who dabbled in alchemy. And while many alchemists studied observable natural phenomena, Brand was one of those alchemists who was purely in it for the money. He wanted to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a material that, theoretically, would be able to turn “base metals,” like lead and iron into gold.
He appears to have been a literal kind of guy, because he reckoned that the way to synthesize a stone that created gold would be from a very common golden liquid: Urine. Specifically, human urine, preferably from those gents down at the biergarten who drink all that golden ale.
There’s no account of who helped Brand, or how he convinced them, but somehow, he got his hands on around 5,000 liters of urine. And with it, he did… nothing. For several weeks, he let the urine go deliberately rancid in the hot sun, presumably giving him lots of time to reconsider his life choices.
Undeterred, and with his sample sufficiently fermented, Brand proceeded to the next step: Distillation. He heated and cooled what liquid remained until finally, a retort filled with a waxy, roiling white substance that mysteriously emitted light without heat. For Brand, the name was obvious. Inspired by Venus, the morning star, he dubbed the material “phosphorus.”
It’s an appropriate name: In addition to the “cold fire” Brand witnessed, it’s pretty connected to the hot kind, too: Phosphorus is extremely flammable.
Matches have existed in various forms for about a thousand years, but they were quite expensive, rather inconvenient, and often pretty dangerous. It wasn’t until the 19th century that cheap, convenient, and relatively safe matches could be mass produced. They consisted of a wooden splint dipped in liquid phosphorus, which would ignite when heat was applied via friction — you know, striking the match.2
The production of these matches was not glamorous work. It was done almost exclusively by poor young women and girls who endured terrible working conditions. The low pay and fourteen-hour days were bad enough, but there were also significant health risks associated with working with phosphorus.3
Matchgirls would frequently complain of toothaches, and it wasn’t because they were eating excessive amounts of candy. This marked the beginning stage of phossy jaw, an occupational hazard caused by inhaling phosphorus fumes. Soon, their gums would be covered in sores, and the very bone of the girls’ jaws started to rot away. It was an extremely painful condition, and often the only treatment was the complete removal of the jaw.4
People began to take notice, in particular, a surprising historical figure whom we’ve met before: Annie Besant.
We last met Annie Besant in Episode 2, helium, where she and Charles Leadbeater were exploring the occult side of chemistry. But theosophy was Besant’s hobby. Her life’s work was activism. She supported women’s rights, Indian and Irish self-governance, and she was a socialist who, through her speaking and writing, fought hard on behalf of workers.5
London’s matchgirls led a work strike in 1888, helped by Besant’s advice and outspoken support. This was a time before electric lighting was available, so people were really dependent on candles and gas lighting, and this was the first time anyone had challenged the politically powerful match industry.
There was enormous public support for the strike, and after only a week, the matchgirls had won fairer pay and safer working conditions. The bad publicity helped move the industry away from dangerous and volatile white phosphorus and toward the use of red phosphorus, which neither caused phossy jaw nor spontaneously ignited in contact with the air — safer both for manufacturer and user.
For a hundred years, phosphorus was harvested from urine in pretty much the same way Brand had done it. But in the 1770s, Carl Wilhelm Scheele showed that there was an even richer biological source of element 15: Bone.
Calcium gets all the press when it comes to bone health, but phosphorus is at least as important. As phosphate, or a phosphorus atom attached to four oxygen atoms, it accounts for over half of a bone’s mass.
And while our skeletons are pretty important, there’s another role phosphorus plays in biology that’s even more important.
Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, is the currency of biochemical energy. Cracking apart a molecule of ATP provides a small amount of energy that a cell can use to perform essential functions. Every movement, from sprinting at full speed to batting an eyelash to a single heartbeat, requires the body to spend some amount of adenosine triphosphate.
This means we go through a lot of ATP in any given day. Thankfully, our bodies are really good at recycling ATP — each molecule of the stuff can be used thousands of times over in a single day.6 That’s actually why we breathe: through respiration, our bodies use oxygen to glue ATP molecules back together, and we can use them again.
And again, this isn’t just for humans, or mammals, or even animals. This is how all known life works. And much like nitrogen, it’s not difficult for us to get keep our phosphorus levels up with our diets. But it’s much more difficult for plants. Phosphorus is another main ingredient in fertilizer, and before the invention of synthetic fertilizer, guano was the best stuff on Earth.7
We’ve name-checked guano a few times in past episodes, but we haven’t actually talked about what it is. I suppose it’s about time we remedy that.
Guano is the euphemistic name for bird droppings. Or sometimes bat droppings. Yes, droppings, as in feces. Excrement. Dung, poop. And it’s basically a straight shot of essential plant nutrients. There are some places, particularly islands off the coast of South America, where birds have been making deposits for centuries or even millennia. On particularly rich islands, the hardened guano runs hundreds of feet deep, and is mined like salt or other minerals.8
Indigenous people had been mining guano for centuries, but colonizing powers set off a global craze for the stuff. If you remember, agriculture was having a difficult time keeping up with booming populations, and farmers’ fields were being exhausted faster than they could be naturally replenished.
The United States took this farther than just about anyone else. In 1856, the US Congress passed the Guano Islands Act, which was a bold piece of legislation. It declared that if any American found any island yet unclaimed by another country, and if there was any guano there, that person could claim that island for the United States.9
Over a hundred islands were claimed this way, and several of them remain part of the United States, like Howland Island, Baker Island, Midway Atoll, and a handful of others.
Nobody actually lives on most of these islands, as they’re far too small to support any kind of settlement. Kingman Reef is probably the saddest example among them: At low tide, it barely pokes out of the water as a narrow strip of land about three kilometers long and three meters wide.10 In fact, for legal purposes, these places don’t actually count as islands, but as merchant vessels on the high seas.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about the Guano Islands Act is that it’s still on the books. Anyone who finds a yet-unclaimed island can still add it to the American Empire. The most recent claim was attempted in 1997, when an American tried to claim a small Caribbean island called Navassa Island for the US. This claim was denied, however, on the grounds that the United States already considered Navassa Island to be one of its territories. It should be noted that Haiti has disputed this claim for well over a century.11
This all seems very silly at best, and perhaps avaricious at worst. It might very well be both of those things. But nearly a century after the Guano Islands Act passed, the islands claimed under it came in extremely useful. Those islands provided a critical foothold for the Allies in the Pacific Theater. All thanks to one big pile of … phosphorus.12
Meanwhile, in the European Theater of the war, phosphorus had a much more direct effect.
In July 1943, the Royal Air Force commenced Operation Gomorrah, an eight-day bombing campaign against strategic German targets. And these were no ordinary bombs: These were incendiary weapons. Firebombs.13
These munitions were laced with phosphorus and thermite, causing them to burn at over 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit for over a week. The city burned in a terrible firestorm, with plumes of flame rising twenty feet into the sky. Winds whipped at 120 miles per hour, toppling buildings to the ground and pulling trees into the air. And the target of Operation Gomorrah was one of Germany’s largest industrial centers, a shipyard and oil refinery, and a city that was home to well over a million civilians: Hamburg, the very city where Hennig Brand had discovered phosphorus.
Clearly it shouldn’t be too hard to get your hands on element 15 for your collection: It’s in your food, and in your bones, and coursing through your veins — and other bodily fluids, of course.
And that’s true! Though it used to be even easier. White phosphorus used to be in such supply that actors used to paint it on their faces for an eerie, otherworldy effect, like if they had to portray the ghost of Hamlet’s father. At least, until they realized that doing this might turn them into a ghost off-stage, as well.
There’s at least one other prominent use of phosphorescent makeup in fiction, as well. Apologies for spoiling a century-old mystery, but this is the secret behind the very spooky and titular canine in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
But red phosphorus is much easier to get a hold of in the 21st century. It comes with any old box of kitchen matches. But don’t be fooled by those little red match heads — the phosphorus is actually in the striker on the side of the box.
Regardless of where you source your phosphorus from, just remember: no matter how brightly it gleams, it’s definitely not gold.
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn , and a story that was just too grim to get into on this episode, visit episodic table dot com slash P. That is, the letter P, not the waste fluid.
Next time, we’ll add some brimstone to this fire with sulfur.
This is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that if it’s yellow, still, just flush it down. C’mon man.
- The Atlantic, What’s So ‘American’ About John Milton’s Lucifer? Edward Simon, March 16, 2017.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Match. Last edited April 13, 2017.
- Spartacus Educational, The 1888 London Matchgirls Strike.
- RDH, The Return Of The Dreaded … ‘Phossy Jaw’. Lynne Slim, July 1, 2009.
- BBC Legacies, Setting The Workers Alight: The East End Match Girls’ Strike.
- Science Direct, Adenosine Triphosphate. Basic Neurochemistry (Eighth Edition), 2012.
- The National Museum Of American History, The Guano Islands Act Of 1856.
- Smithsonian Magazine, How The Gold Rush Led To Real Riches In Bird Poop. Jackson Landers, February 17, 2016.
- Atlas Obscura, When The Western World Ran On Guano. Cara Giaimo, October 14, 2015.
- It is home to a lone coconut seedling. At least, it was, about 15 years ago. Someone should go check on the poor thing.
- The Washington Post, The Guano Islands Act. Kevin Underhill, July 8, 2014.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Battle of Midway. Last edited July 26, 2016.
- Stanford Computer Science, Firebombing In WWII: A Brief Introduction. Eric Roberts, British Technology And The Second World War.