The Alchemist Who Discovered Phosphorus in Pee

Bess Lovejoy

Today we generally think of urine as a waste product, but in the 17th century, at least one alchemist thought it could be as precious as gold. OK, he literally thought it could be gold.

In 1669, German alchemist Hennig Brand boiled 1500 gallons of urine in his basement laboratory, convinced that the foul-smelling brew would somehow transmute into gold at the end of his process. Brand failed to find any precious metal at the bottom of his containers, of course, but he did discover phosphorus—not that he had any idea that’s what it was. Although phosphorus is one of the building blocks of life, and would later go on to be an important component of both synthetic fertilizers and explosives, Brand just thought he’d found the philosopher’s stone. Check out Great Big Story’s charming video above for more on one of history’s great accidental discoveries.

Header images via Great Big Story/YouTube