On Phosphorus

Miss Porden

To the Editor of the Attic Chest


Some disquisition on the discovery and properties of Phosphorus, having arisen at the last meeting of the Attic Society, I take the liberty of sending you a few hints on the subject, from notes collected at a lecture, given by Mr. Davy, at the Royal Institution in the autumn of last year.

I am, Sir, your most obedient and
Humble Servant

Phosphorus is entirely an artificial substance, being no where found in a natural state. The account of the discovery of phosphorus is like the fable of the husbandman, who just before his death, induced his children to dig in the fields which he bequeathed to them from the hope of finding concealed treasure, in the search of which they dug their ground over, and in consequence it produced better crops than that of their neighbours.

Phosphorus was first discovered by an alchemist in Germany, named Brandt, in endeavouring to find a liquor capable of converting silver into gold. An English philosopher, named Boyle, wishing to purchase the secret, accidentally mentioned the discovery, and his intention, to a person with whom he was acquainted, name Kraft, who immediately went over to Brandt and purchased the secret of him. He afterwards went through Europe, shewing phosphorus, and its peculiar properties, for money. Boyle, hearing of this, immediately set to work, and after some time, and a great deal of labour, succeeded in the discovery of it for himself. He neither sold the secret, not communicated his discoveries to any one, but lodged a sealed account of the method of procuring phosphorus to be opened after his death, with the Royal Society. Kraft, who had purchased the secret of Brandt, endeavoured to spread a report that he first discovered phosphorus, and communicated his secret to Boyle, but surely the assertion of such a man as Kraft is not to be put in competition with the affirmation of Boyle.

Phosphorus is procured chiefly from bone ashes; the bones of all terrestrial animals, being composed of phosphate of lime, rendered tenacious by a considerable portion of muscular fibre permeating it in every direction. The process of making phosphorus from bones is easy, and it may be made in considerable quantities. 400 ounces have sometimes been made at once. It is also procured from various other substances. Canton observed that the scales of various sorts of fishes presented a luminous appearance in a dark room, especially just before the commencement of putrefaction. He attributed the luminous appearance of these fish to phosphorus, and succeeded in procuring from them a species of phosphorus, known by the name of Canton’s Phosphorus.

Phosphorus burns with a very brilliant light, at ninety-nine, or one hundred degrees of fahrenheit, which shews how very carefully it ought to be handled, as that temperature is the ordinary temperature of the human body. In oxygen, phosphorus burns with a light as brilliant as that of the sun at 100° of fahrenheit. It is a non-conductor of electricity; always luminous, especially in the dark.

It has been generally supposed that the deceitful light, called Ignis Fatuus or Will o’the Wisp, proceeds from electrical charges in the earth, but it is found to arise from the phosphorescence of rotten wood. Mr. Davy in the year 1804, walking with a friend in a bog, in the Isle of Mull, perceived these lights rising up on every side of them, and at first thought that they were close upon a village, but after some time they discovered that it was nothing but Will o’the Wisp. Sometimes it followed their footsteps, light sprung up wherever they had trod, and the soles of their shoes appeared on fire. Wherever Mr. Davy could trace these lights to the place whence they proceeded, he always found them to arise from the phosphorescence of rotten wood.