The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus
, Aug 28, 2000
- 327 pages
The 13th Element It was discovered by alchemists, prescribed by apothecaries, exploited by the industrialists of the nineteenth century, and abused by the combatants of the twentieth century. For more than 300 years, phosphorus-one of nature's deadliest creations-has continued to fascinate us with the many surprising roles it has played in human history. Now, award-winning author John Emsley combines his gift for storytelling with his scientific expertise to present an enthralling account of this eerily luminescent element. First unleashed in the mid-1600s in Hamburg, Germany, when alchemist Hannig Brandt distilled it from human urine, phosphorus was hailed as one of the secret substances of the "philosopher's stone" and a marvelous cure-all. However, it soon became known as the "devil's element" by causing more curses than cures. Although phosphorus matches (called lucifers) were considered "the greatest boon and blessing to come to mankind in the nineteenth century," the women and children who made them endured dangerous and unbearable working conditions and, eventually, the rasping pain of phossy jaw. During World War I, the bum damage done by phosphorus was horrific. During World War II, the Nazis turned phosphorus into chemical agents far more powerful in disabling people than any other war gas. It has for centuries been used as a murderous poison. Whenever man has wanted to commit evil, phosphorus has often been there to help him. But set against these tales of woe are the remarkable benefits of phosphorus. It can be found in many things that have improved our everyday life, from toothpaste to detergents to food additives. And it can also cause wonder; phosphorus is the likely cause of mysterious lights, graveyard ghosts, and spontaneous human combustion! From murders-by-phosphorus where the bodies glowed green to the match factory strike that helped end child labor in England, to the irony of the World War II firebombing of Hamburg, to even deadlier compounds derived from phosphorus today. The 13th Element weaves together a rich tableau of brilliant and oddball characters, social upheavals, and curious, bizarre, and horrific events that comprise the surprising 300-year history of nature's most nefarious element.