Phosphorus was created when an alchemist tried to distill gold from human urine


The history of science is full of happy accidents – including Hennig Brand, who was a German alchemist in the 1660s.

I’m not saying he was a gold digger — but he did marry first one rich lady, and then, after her death, a second rich lady and he used their money to literally try to make gold. Brand was convinced he could distill gold from a golden substance that he encountered every day: human urine. He used his wife’s money to build a basement laboratory and employed his stepson as a lab assistant. Then, he started collecting.

In the end, Brand’s persistence paid off. He didn’t make gold, but he did end up with a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark. He had stumbled upon the element phosphorus. The name, appropriately, starts with “p.”

Phosphorus, it turns out, is an incredibly powerful element. It has been used in deadly explosives and in the synthetic fertilizers that help feed the world.