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Thumbnail of Johann Rudolf Glauber (source)
Johann Rudolf Glauber
(1604 - 10 Mar 1668)

German-Dutch chemist, sometimes called the German Boyle, i.e., the father of German chemistry.


Johann Rudolf Glauber

from A Science-History of the Universe (1909)

Johann Glauber
Johann Glauber (source)

[p.77]Johann Rudolf Glauber, (born in Franken, Bavaria, in 1604, and died at Amsterdam in 1668) still shares a somewhat hazy popular fame as the discoverer of “Glauber’s salt” (sodium sulphate). This compound, which is mentioned in his ‘De Natura Salium,’ published in 1658, was obtained from the residue left in the preparation of hydrochloric acid, and, under the name “sal mirabile,” was prized highly by physicians. The collected works of Glauber were translated into English and published in a folio volume, containing three parts embodying twenty-six treatises, by Christopher Packe, in London, in 1689. In these treatises are found clear descriptions of the preparation of many chemical compounds, and intelligible explanations in theoretical points of chemistry.

Glauber [p.78] also showed intelligence in questions of national and domestic economy, and on numerous occasions he sought to prove that Germany should work up and improve its own products, and not leave this for other countries to do.

He was, however, inoculated with the prejudices of his age, and was addicted to the fantastic extravagances of alchemy. In writing he sometimes affected the style of the older alchemists, and the following passage from a discussion on “concentrating and amending metals by niter” will show how humorously absurd some of his ideas were:

“First a man is to be made of iron, having two noses on his head, and on his crown a mouth which may be opened and again close shut. This if it be to be used for the concentration of metals is to be inserted into another man made of iron or stone, that the inward head only may come forth of the outward man, but the rest of his body or belly may remain hidden in the belly of the exterior man. And to each nose of the head glass receivers are to be applied, to receive the vapors ascending from the hot stomach. When you use this man you must render him bloody with fire to make him hungry and greedy of food. When he grows extremely hungry he is to be fed with a white swan. When that food shall be given to this iron man, an admirable water will ascend from his fiery stomach into his head, and thence by his two noses flow into the appointed receivers; a water, I say, which will be a true and efficacious aqua-vitae; for the iron man consumeth the whole swan by digesting it, and changeth it into a most excellent and profitable food for the king and queen, by which they are corroborated, augmented, and grow. But before the swan yieldeth up her spirit she singeth her swan-like song, which being ended, her breath expireth with a strong wind, and leaveth her roasted body for meat for the king, but her anima or spirit she consecrateth to the gods that thence may be made a salamander, a wholesome medicament for men and women.”

[p.79] In his ‘Proserpine: or, the Goddess of Riches,’ Part III, Glauber details “the fundamental process, how to make good gold out of silver, with profit, and how to separate good gold and silver out of iron, tin, copper, and lead.”

Notwithstanding his adherence to mysticism, Glauber enriched chemistry in an eminent degree by his discoveries. In attacking the question of the composition of bodies, he commenced by considering the conditions under which certain salts were produced, and the products of their mutual decomposition. Instead of preparing the chlorides of metals as heretofore, by heating the metal with sublimate (mercuric chloride), he treated the metal directly with hydrochloric acid, and concluded that the salt produced was merely a solution of the metal in the acid. This was a convincing blow to the time-honored idea that the mercury of the sublimate had entered into the composition of the chlorides obtained.

Moreover, Glauber taught how to prepare hydrochloric acid from rock salt and oil of vitriol, and also fuming nitric acid from saltpeter and white arsenic. The preparation of hydrochloric acid, or ‘spirit of salt,’ is described in the first section of the second part of the ‘Miraculum Mundi.’ Here also is given the method of obtaining ‘sal mirabile,’ the discovery of which first appeared in his ‘De Natura Salium.’ To the discussion of the ‘spirit of salt,’ Glauber adds: “Plainly after the very same manner as we have taught spirit of salt to be prepared, so may also be made ‘Aqua fortis’ (nitric acid). . . . Instead of salt take niter, and you will have ‘Aqua fortis.’“ For a long time afterward the acid thus obtained (fuming nitric acid) was known as ‘spiritus nitri fumans Glauberi.’

Glauber's 'Iron Man'
Glauber's 'Iron Man'

The combination of acids with metals or alkalis was attributed by Glauber to a certain associative tendency, which he termed ‘Gemeinschaft.’ He never employed the term ‘affinity,’ altho, as mentioned before, it was already the property of chemical literature. In Glauber’s works we find a clear description of the preparation of sulphate of ammonia, formerly known as “sal ammoniacum secretum Glauberi,” and the discovery of nitrate of ammonia, ‘nitrum flammans.’ He was also the first to prepare chloride of arsenic, and. ferric and plumbic chlorides, and to him is due a clearer knowledge of the chemistry of antimoniate of potash and other antimony compounds. He prepared impure zinc chloride by heating calamine strongly with hydrochloric acid; proved that copper sulphate, blue vitriol, is produced by boiling copper with oil of vitriol; and he was the first to mention a case of what is called double decomposition. His observations on the latter are of interest; to quote from one of his treatises,

“Aqua regia which has taken gold into solution kills the salt of tartar (potash) of the liquor of flints [p.81] (silicate of potash) in such a way as to cause it to abandon the silica, and in exchange the salt of tartar paralyzes the action of the aqua regia in such a way as to make it let go the gold which it had dissolved. It is thus that the silica and gold are both deprived of their solvents. The precipitate is composed, then, at the same time of gold and of silica, the weights of which together represent that of the gold and of the silica originally taken.”

With Glauber and Tachenius the period of Medical Mysticism closes. Both of them advanced chemistry by valuable observations, and in many of their chemical ideas and also in point of time, they really belong to the next, the Phlogistic, Period. The iatro-chemists had preserved a real science throughout a troublous and Philistine period, while their often fantastic speculations had caused no inconsiderable increase in the knowledge of chemical preparations. However, the advance in the knowledge of the composition of substances and in the observation of reactions first became pronounced toward the close of the Period.

In the works of Agricola, Biringucci, Caesalpino, Glauber and Palissy, stress is laid upon accurate description of technical operations, and it is from these works that knowledge accrues of the progress made in technical chemistry during the Iatro-chemical Period.

For readability, ellipses in first line not shown, and two paragraph breaks added. Image of Glauber added (not in original article) from source shown above. Text and Iron Man image from A Science-History of the Universe (1909), Vol. 4, 77-81. (source)


See also:
  • 10 Mar - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Glauber's death.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

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