Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2088

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a 17th-century thinker searches for gold. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

One hears talk of superstitious alchemy and enlightened science. That makes a neat package, but the world is not so neat. To trace the real metamorphosis of alchemy, let's meet a late alchemist -- Johann Joachim Becher, born in Germany in 1635.

Johann Joachim Becher Becher edited an alchemical tract when he was nineteen. From then on, his life revolved about the twin themes of alchemy and gold. He published his first book when he was twenty-six, and it established him as a metallurgical chemist.

But he lived a restless life. He worked for a while in Munich as advisor to the elector of Bavaria, then in Vienna as counselor to the Austrian emperor. In Austria, he proposed facilitating trade with the Dutch by building a canal between Rhine and Danube Rivers. That canal actually got built, but not until 1992.

Becher also argued that governments should strictly control the flow of goods and money -- that colonies should make up deficits with raw materials, chiefly with gold. His 1668 book, Political Discourse, established him as the leading German theorist of that economic system, which we came to call mercantilism. After ten years in Vienna, his radical ideas got him fired. He was even jailed for protesting the importation of French goods.

So Becher moved on to Holland. There he tried to sell the Dutch assembly on a process for extracting gold from coastal sand. He built a small demonstration process, then suddenly deserted his family and ran off to England without building the pilot plant.

His last book was a chemistry text published just before he died in 1682. Its 1500 chemical processes included one for making a "philosopher's stone" to turn lead into gold.

Two years later, Newton wrote the Principia, and the rules of science changed radically. But Europe did embrace Becher's Mercantilism, and almost immediately began pushing it to various breaking points. Spain had most grievously misread Becher's ideas. She did herself serious harm by stealing all the gold from her Central American colonies and spending it without building up internal technologies. But that was not Becher's worry. He simply said,

... chemists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapor, soot and flame, poisons and poverty, yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly, that [I'd die before I'd] change places with the Persian King.

For someone who rode so many wrong horses, Becher's legacy was quite large. He spurred others to make important changes in the way alchemy was used. He began to endow its essences with what we would call chemical properties. As he stirred the pot of 17th-century thinking, he set in motion changes in science, government, and economics. While he focused on gold,
he actually helped to create a world that was far less vulnerable to gold's empty promises.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

A. G. Debus, "Becher, Johann Hoachim," in C. C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970).

See also, this biography of Becher's student, Stahl: L. S. King, "Stahl, Georg Ernst," in C. C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 12 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975).

For more on Becher's role in scientific change, see: J. H. Lienhard, How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006): Chapter 6.

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 293.

Physica Subterranea
Frontispiece and title page of Becher's Physica Subterranea, first published in 1669.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.