How Pee Led to One of the 17th Century's Most Important Chemistry Breakthroughs

You probably just flush your urine down the toilet, but some European alchemists used it in their experiments, and in the process made a scientific discovery that helped modernize the world.


In this video from the American Chemical Society’s Reactions series, “How Pee Brought You The Modern World,” host Darcy Gentleman explains how alchemist Hennig Brand, in his quest for the philosopher’s stone (a material which would supposedly turn base metals into gold), boiled urine and discovered phosphorous, a substance that proved quite useful, particularly in making matches for fire on demand. Just brace yourself for a pantload of pee puns.

[via Laughing Squid]


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Another important chemical discovery related to urine: in 1828, Friedrich Wöhler synthesised urea from ammonia cyanate and proved that it was identical to the biologically-produced byproduct, thus dispelling the long-held notion of the inherent “vitalism” of naturally produced compounds that made them different, and helping to pave the way for organic synthesis. Of course, not everyone renounced the idea of vitalism, including Louis Pasteur.