‘Flashback’ Lecture Notes: The Dangerous Discovery That Sparked the Modern Labor Movement - OZY | A Modern Media Company
SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Few elements can match phosphorous when it comes to the ability to save and destroy human lives.

By Sean Braswell

In Episode 8 of Flashback, OZY’s chart-topping history podcast, we learn how the discovery of one of the most hazardous elements on earth helped light the match that would eventually ignite a social movement that changed human labor relations.

It all started with a 17th century German chemist named Hennig Brandt, who was convinced that by distilling human urine he could somehow create gold. He was wrong, but in a vial of his boiled urine he discovered something else in 1669: phosphorous. And that product, nicknamed “the devil’s element,” would change the world, from matchsticks to labor strikes to deadly explosives to synthetic fertilizers that help feed the world. 

You can listen to the episode here, and then enjoy digging deeper into the story in my Lecture Notes below.

You Can’t Spell the History of Phosphorous Without P

If ever there was a gold digger, it was Hennig Brandt. Not only did he spend most of his free time attempting to derive gold from everyday materials in pursuit of the coveted philosopher’s stone, but he also used his wealthy first wife’s money to do it (and then his wealthy second wife’s money). In the basement laboratory that these private funds provided, Brandt collected an estimated 1,500 gallons of urine, which he boiled down for his experiments. It was every bit as awful as it sounds, and a few years ago, the BBC Two television series, The Story of Science, recreated the foul genius of it all.

The Dangerous Art of Matchmaking

Born in putridness, phosphorous ultimately grew in commercial importance through its use in friction matches, invented by the English chemist John Walker in 1827. The highly toxic process by which the white phosphorous matches were made, however, would cost the lives of untold numbers of matchworkers, mostly young women and girls. Louise Raw, author of Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History, explained to me how the matches were made at the leading English matchmaking company of the time, Bryant and May.

The Matchwomen vs. Jack the Ripper

The “matchwomen” who protested conditions in the Bryant and May factory (and won) were renown for their steely dispositions. And they also didn’t back down when they got some blowback from the other big media story taking place in London’s East End in 1888: Jack the Ripper. Three months after the matchwomen’s strike, a letter arrived at the Bryant and May factory, signed “John Ripper” in which the author threatened to “pay a visit” to the company’s female workers and dispense with them in his own way. No workers fell victim to the serial killer, and the letter may have been a hoax.

When Dresden was ‘Bombed To Atoms’

The ghastly firebombing of the German city of Dresden by the Allies in World War II was made possible by phosphorus. After the bombing, as the American writer Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in the city, and one of its few survivors, put it in his classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Dresden “was like the moon.” In this news clip from British Pathé you can see some of the original footage of the bombing, which killed more than 25,000 people, largely civilians.

‘There’s One Thing We All Got Between Our Bread’

On a somewhat lighter note — and just to show you can make a musical out of almost any subject matter — listen to the song “Phosphorous” from the 1966 musical The Matchgirls, by Bill Owen and Tony Russell, about the London matchwomen’s strike of 1888. Because the workers did not have separate dining facilities to eat meals (mostly just bread) at the factory, they could not escape the toxic phosphorous particles, even while on break.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories