*line from “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile”, the full name of a World War I marching song, published in 1915 in London.
“Discovery – 1669, Hennig Brand, Germany
Phosphorus was accidentally discovered by Henning Brand while he was working with urine. As an alchemist, Brand attempted to create the philosopher’s stone, a legendary stone that could transmute base elements into gold. It was believed that bodily products such as hair, urine, and eggs could produce the fabled stone. In his attempt to make the philosopher’s stone, he instead produced and discovered one of the most critical elements of our food supply system.
During his work on the stone, Brand took several hundred liters of urine (yes, you read that correctly), allowed it to rot, boiled off the excess water leaving a paste. Heating the paste resulted in vapors which he passed through a column of water. Brand’s hope was that these vapors would condense into gold. Instead, he found a white substance that glowed in the dark. Brand named this substance phosphorus mirabilis (miraculous bearer of light).”
“Phosphorus is a chemical element with the symbol P and atomic number 15. Elemental phosphorus exists in two major forms, white phosphorus and red phosphorus, but because it is highly reactive, phosphorus is never found as a free element on Earth. It has a concentration in the Earth’s crust of about one gram per kilogram (compare copper at about 0.06 grams). In minerals, phosphorus generally occurs as phosphate.
Elemental phosphorus was first isolated as white phosphorus in 1669. White phosphorus emits a faint glow when exposed to oxygen – hence the name, taken from Greek mythology, Φωσφόρος meaning “light-bearer” (Latin Lucifer), referring to the “Morning Star”, the planet Venus. The term “phosphorescence”, meaning glow after illumination, derives from this property of phosphorus, although the word has since been used for a different physical process that produces a glow. The glow of phosphorus is caused by oxidation of the white (but not red) phosphorus — a process now called chemiluminescence. Together with nitrogen, arsenic, antimony, and bismuth, phosphorus is classified as a pnictogen.
Phosphorus is essential for life. Phosphates (compounds containing the phosphate ion, PO43−) are a component of DNA, RNA, ATP, and phospholipids. Elemental phosphorus was first isolated from human urine, and bone ash was an important early phosphate source. Phosphate mines contain fossils because phosphate is present in the fossilized deposits of animal remains and excreta. Low phosphate levels are an important limit to growth in some aquatic systems. The vast majority of phosphorus compounds mined are consumed as fertilisers. Phosphate is needed to replace the phosphorus that plants remove from the soil, and its annual demand is rising nearly twice as fast as the growth of the human population. Other applications include organophosphorus compounds in detergents, pesticides, and nerve agents.
Early matches used white phosphorus in their composition, which was dangerous due to its toxicity. Murders, suicides and accidental poisonings resulted from its use. (An apocryphal tale tells of a woman attempting to murder her husband with white phosphorus in his food, which was detected by the stew’s giving off luminous steam). In addition, exposure to the vapours gave match workers a severe necrosis of the bones of the jaw, known as “phossy jaw”. When a safe process for manufacturing red phosphorus was discovered, with its far lower flammability and toxicity, laws were enacted, under the Berne Convention (1906), requiring its adoption as a safer alternative for match manufacture. The toxicity of white phosphorus led to discontinuation of its use in matches.
In the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, red phosphorus powder is seen twice. Walter White first synthesizes methamphetamine through the Nagai route, using red phosphorus and iodine to reduce pseudoephedrine. Later in the episode, he mixes the red phosphorus powder with water to maim Krazy-8 and Emilio Koyama by generating phosphine gas.”