In the days when smoking was a bigger part of American culture, matches were everywhere. Hotels and restaurants gave matchbooks away; people carried them in their pockets and purses. Well, you’ll never believe where the stuff in the match head came from.
Ever heard of alchemy? It was a medieval “science” and philosophy, and one of its goals was to find a way to turn base metals into gold through a process called transmutation. Scientists now know that this is impossible, but in the 1600s, it was a viable—and potentially lucrative—form of research.
An alchemist from Hamburg, Germany, named Hennig Brand believed the way to create gold was by chemically altering a very common substance: urine. At the time, it made sense. A prevailing theory of the day was that because urine and gold were both yellow, some advanced form of alchemy might be able to turn one into the other. With this in mind, Brand spent months collecting urine. When he’d accumulated 50 buckets of the stuff—mostly donated by local soldiers—he put them in his basement to “age,” or allow the water to evaporate out and concentrate the urine.
One day in 1669, Brand was experimenting with his bucketloads of concentrated soldier pee and ended up with a vibrant blue-green substance that appeared to glow, both in the light and in the dark. But Brand couldn’t get it to do anything else.
In 1675 another German alchemist named Daniel Kraft purchased Brand’s blue goo and made a fortune showing it off to royalty and other wealthy Europeans. Kraft’s act was basically magic tricks: He’d light candles with the stuff, throw it into gunpowder to make explosions, and write glowing blue-green words with it. It wouldn’t be until 100 years later that the blue-green substance that Brand had discovered (and Kraft tried to take credit for) would be named: phosphorus. Today, phosphorus is abundant in manufacturing, commonly used in products such as soda, fertilizer, matches, flares, and fireworks. (And they don’t have to get it from urine.)