Glauber, Johann Rudolph

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Glauber, Johann Rudolph

(b. Karlstadt, Germany, 1604; d. Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 1670)

chemistry, medicine, metallurgy.

Glauber was the son of a barber, Rudolph Glauber von Hundsbach, and his second wife, Gertraut Gosenberger. Unlike most iatrochemists, he did not attend a university but instead set out in quest of spagyric wisdom, visiting laboratories in Paris, Basel, Salzburg, and Vienna. At one time he earned his living by casting metallic mirrors, and in 1635 he went to work as a court apothecary in Giessen. There he married Rebecca Jacobs but soon divorced her on grounds of infidelity; in 1641 he married Helene Cornelius, who bore him eight children.

The political uncertainties of the Thirty Years’ War persuaded Glauber to leave Germany about 1639. Although his biographers often claim that he returned in the 1640’s, Glauber himself tells of settling in Amsterdam and remaining there, except for brief stays in Utrecht and Arnhem, until 1650. During these years he invented his famous distillatory furnaces, which made it possible to obtain high temperatures and to heat substances under a variety of conditions. One of the furnaces had a chimney and may have been the first so equipped. Encouraged by these technical improvements, Glauber began to speak of himself as a chemical philosopher and, in a burst of creative activity, completed most of the practical work for which he is famous.

With the end of political strife Glauber happily returned to Germany to work in the wine industry in Wertheim and Kitzingen—at least this was his ostensible profession and the source of his livelihood. His main interest continued to be alchemy, but he found it prudent to conceal his activities because of the hostility to goldmakers. He also set aside one hour each day to administer free medicines, especially his panacea antimonialis (probably antimony pentasulfide). In 1655 Glauber again left Germany for Amsterdam, this time never to return. The move was undoubtedly related to a bitter dispute with Christopher Farner, who had stolen some of his processes and had slandered his work and character. Amsterdam was also more receptive to Glauber’s religious beliefs; although born a Catholic, he argued that men would be judged by their deeds rather than by the idiosyncrasies of a particular sect.

In Amsterdam, Glauber outfitted what was surely the most impressive laboratory in Europe. Samuel Sorbière, a visitor to the laboratory in 1660, described it as “magnificent.” There were workrooms both inside and outside the house, and the walls were covered with vessels and instruments of Glauber’s own invention. Even the garden was utilized for agricultural experiments. After 1662 Glauber was plagued with ill health and was eventually bedridden for months at a time. He continued to write prolifically, but with more time for contemplation he began to emphasize the esoteric side of alchemy and to regret his years of toil in the laboratory. He believed that he had finally found the “secret fire of Artephius” and the material of the philosophers’ stone. He died in 1670, poor, lonely, and embittered, and was buried in the Westerkerk, Amsterdam.

Glauber was an independent worker, boastful of his own achievements and suspicious of others. He had little to do with other chemists, and there is no evidence to suggest that he corresponded with important contemporaries. Since he refused to be associated with a patron, he was forced to live entirely on the sale of his products. His chief vehicle for luring customers was his writings, and he filled them with exaggerated claims—suggesting, indeed, that his inventions would usher in a kind of chemical apocalypse. Critics quickly charged Glauber both with revealing too much about alchemy and with peddling useless processes. As the criticism mounted, he withdrew even more into himself, taking comfort in the contrast of his own virtue with the pride and greed of other men.

Glauber was more influenced by the metallurgical tradition than other iatrochemists were, and it was undoubtedly from Agricola, Vannoccio Biringuccio, and Lazarus Ercker that he derived much of his practical good sense. On the other hand, alchemy, particularly that of Paracelsus, J. I. Hollandus, Michael Sendivogius, and J. B. van Helmont, determined his goals and his perception of his work. Glauber’s own influence was widespread. The Furni novi philosophici (1646–1649) was quickly translated into Latin, English, and French and went through many editions; major compilations of his works appeared in Latin, English, and German. Robert Boyle, Nicholas Le Fèvre, and Johann Kunckel were all impressed by his labors, and Hermann Boerhaave spoke especially highly of him. In the eighteenth century his name continued to be associated with many processes, and even today hydrated sodium sulfate is familiarly known as Glauber’s salt.

Glauber gave the best account of his practical work in the Furni novi philosophici, a book written with a clarity and an honesty almost unprecedented in early chemistry. With it he established his reputation as a master of laboratory skills. He carefully described the materials and dimensions for the construction of the furnaces and gave instructions for the necessary accessory equipment: vitrified earthen vessels to withstand the increased temperatures, a large quantity of cupels and crucibles, improved condensing apparatus, and jars with mercury seals or ground glass stoppers to store corrosive and volatile liquids.

The range of distillable substances was increased tremendously with these furnaces, and Glauber put into them almost anything he could lay hands on. From the mineral kingdom he prepared the mineral acids (hydrochloric, nitric, and sulfuric) in concentrated form and with them made chlorides, nitrates, and sulfates. He was probably the first to distill coal and obtain (with the help of hydrochloric acid) benzene and phenol. From the animal kingdom he distilled the “superfluities”: hair, horns, feathers, silk, and urine. He extracted the aromatic oils of plants by first soaking their parts in salt water or hydrochloric acid, and he obtained acroleins by distilling burned clay balls presoaked in the fatty oils. The dry distillation of wood yielded wood vinegar, with which he produced metal acetates and acetone. The distillation of salt of tartar (potassium carbonate), effected by adding powdered flints, particularly intrigued him. Liquor of flints (potassium silicate) was obtained as a by-product, and the metallic trees that he grew by adding metal salts were a source of great delight to him.

Glauber’s efficient production of such important chemical reactants as the mineral acids is particularly noteworthy since they are essential for other processes. He described several ways in which each can be prepared, realizing that the products are similar, although the methods by which they are prepared are different. He recognized, for example, that the spirit of sulfur produced by burning sulfur under a bell jar is of similar nature to the oil of vitriol distilled from green vitriol and that the vitriol used in his recommended recipe for hydrochloric acid functions as a catalyst. His preparation of nitric and hydrochloric acids by applying sulfuric acid to saltpeter and common salt, respectively, was long kept secret because of the purity obtainable.

The Pharmacopoea spagyrica (1654–1668) and Dess Teutschlands-Wohlfahrt (1656–1661) were more typical of Glauber’s style than was the earlier Furni. Written intermittently over a period of several years, they lack both organization and a consistent point of view. Descriptions of processes are often squeezed between lengthy digressions or are obscured by metaphors and references to classical mythology.

The Pharmacopoea spagyrica is a collection of the medical preparations that Glauber found most reliable. Indeed, most of the products of Glauber’s laboratory found eventual use in medicine. Like other iatrochemists, he complained about the sorry assortment of substances to be found in most apothecary shops while boasting of the high standards met by his own work. He believed that the most effective remedies were those prepared from the mineral kingdom, and he reported extensive work with chlorides, antimony and sulfur compounds, gold preparations, and a “magnesia of Saturn.”

Although he preferred mineral remedies, Glauber nevertheless devoted considerable space in the Pharmacopoea to proving his skill in more traditional areas. He suggested a new way to prepare essences of herbs by separating and recombining their oils, spirits, and salts. By soaking plant substances in nitric or sulfuric acid and then adding potash, he precipitated fine powders that may well have been the alkaloids strychnine, brucine, and morphine. Frequently manifest in his choice of materials was the time-honored assumption that unpleasant substances yield the best medicines. He therefore praised the virtues of excrements and gave recipes using worms, beetles and venomous toads.

The final sections of the Pharnlacopoea show Glauber’s immersion in esoteric alchemy in later life. His revelation of a “secret sal armoniack” (ammonium sulfate) was followed by the revelation of an even grander “most secret sal armoniack” (ammonium nitrate?). The latter was claimed to be the celebrated alchemical substance that Adam brought out of the Garden of Eden. Man thus carried within himself the means to transform the natural world—but in such a loathsome place that his pride kept him from finding it. In spite of the deliberate obscurity, it seems likely that Glauber prepared his “most secret” salt by combining ammonia and saltpeter, made from excrement and urine.

Glauber displayed a good sense of economic feasibility as well as his love for his homeland in Dess Teutschlands-Wohlfahrt, a work encouraging Germans to make better use of their natural resources and to become economically self-sufficient. He gave recipes for wine and beer concentrates that are both stable and easily exported and he mentioned a secret press for the efficient extraction of niter from wood. He proceeded to point out that niter can then be used in the extraction of metals, particularly gold and silver, and that these precious metals, in turn, could be directed into foreign trade. He dedicated a variety of other items to the fatherland: new medicines, a fertilizer of salt and lime, a seed preparation, and various techniques for processing metals. Finally, since all this was futile without adequate protection from the Turks, he disclosed a new weapon: a missile containing “fiery water” (a fuming acid, or perhaps essential oils to be ignited by nitric acid).

Glauber also devoted considerable attention to transmutation in Dess Teutschlands-Wohlfahrt. Although be sometimes. used the word loosely, he usually meant to refer to two operations distinguished as “universal” and “particular” transmutation. The “universal” transmutation was effected through the philosophers’ stone, which Glauber did not claim to have prepared in its final form. “Particular” transmutation, on the other hand, was effected through salts; and he claimed to be a master of these. In our terms, such operations usually involve the extraction of components present in the original material. Glauber believed that spiritual substances were transmuted into corporeal bodies, presumably because he could not detect components that vanished in the fire unless they were first fixed with salt.

Glauber’s interest in the transmutation of metals and in industrial chemistry distinguished him from Paracelsus and other iatrochemists, who were more narrowly concerned with the preparation of chemical medicines. In the most general sense Glauber sought to perfect nature for the enhancement of human life—to render useless things useful through the release of their hidden virtues. Such changes were effected in his laboratory primarily through the “ripening” powers of salts.

Since art imitates nature, the role of salt in Glauber’s laboratory corresponded to its role in the macrocosm. The sun was the fountain of all maturation and perfection in the natural world, and its fire was carried by an aerial salt to the earth below, where it was responsible for the growth of all things. This explained why gold and spices and sweet wine, the ripest of growths, came from southern lands, where sun and salt are most abundant. Sulfurous salts were operative in mines, and the active force of fertilizer was the salt it contained. Animals derived salt from the air they breathed and from their food. Glauber was by no means unusual among metallurgists in attributing growth to minerals; nor was he unusual, in the seventeenth century, in believing that the sun, operating through a universal salt, underlay the unity of all living things. His laboratory skill in preparing and handling salts, however, predisposed him to describe the role of the universal salt more specifically than did many of his contemporaries.

In the early parts of the Miraculum mundi (1653–1660) Glauber specified that the universal salt is niter. The claim was less preposterous than it sounds, since he was not referring to a single substance but to a family of substances: niter in its crude form (saltpeter); the “spirit” of niter (nitric acid), obtained through distillation; and “fixed niter” (potassium carbonate), the residue when niter is deflagrated with charcoal. Glauber’s contention that niter was universally present in nature was grounded upon his ability to produce it from a variety of different sources and his realization that vegetable alkalies were similar to his “fixed nitre.” (Even in the eighteenth century it was not always understood that these substances have the same chemical composition.) When Glauber called niter a universal dissolvent, he sometimes referred only to the fixed salt (alkahest: “Alkali est”), but usually he intended the term to apply to niter in its three forms. What one form did not dissolve, one of the others could. Even stones could be dissolved, since powdered flints fused with potassium carbonate yielded liquor of flints. He gave numerous uses for the ripening powers of niter, from the fertilization of grape vines to the removal of facial wrinkles and the coloring of shoe leather. As his critics were quick to note, Glauber had reduced the mysteries of alchemy to a rather mundane level.

The work with niter illustrates rather well that although Glauber generally had a better sense of chemical composition than his contemporaries, the animistic categories of alchemy still had a strong hold over his conception of matter. On the one hand, he displayed a good understanding of the acid and base constituents of salt: not only did he make potassium carbonate and nitric acid out of saltpeter, but he also took the further step of combining these two to yield saltpeter. (Boyle described a similar experiment in his Essay on Nitre, denying that it had been inspired by Glauber.) On the other hand, he regarded the constituents of saltpeter as spirit and body and described the three forms of niter as though they were preformed in one another and elaborated through sexual procreation.

In 1658 the Tractatus de natura salium appeared, and in 1660 a second part was added to the Miraculum mundi. Only then did Glauber recognize the significance of his “sal mirabile” (Glauber’s salt) and begin to utilize it, not very successfully, in the central position that niter formerly held. It was produced in its most interesting form as a by-product of his secret process for hydrochloric acid: from common salt and sulfuric acid. Hence he considered it to be common salt brought to its highest degree of purity, and he argued plausibly that common salt is everywhere present in nature. Glauber drew on the analogy of microcosm and macrocosm and Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood to demonstrate the circulation of salt in the macrocosm. It was further argued that salts could be generated out of one another and that all were forms of the primordial common salt. Glauber therefore saw no incompatibility between his previous focus on niter and his new commitment to “sal mirabile.” The applications suggested for the new salt in art, alchemy, agriculture, and medicine were as numerous as those for niter. One worth noting was the use of “sal mirabile” in its anhydrous form to remove excess water from oils, mineral acids, vinegar, and poor-quality wines.

Since the light (heat) of the sun was ultimately responsible for all changes on earth, Glauber was greatly intrigued by optical phenomena, particularly those associated with mirrors and colored glass. He had once made metallic mirrors for a living and claimed to own one of the finest in Europe. In the Furni he gave a careful description both of the casting procedure and of the speculum metal itself: an alloy of copper, arsenic, brass, and tin. He experimented on metals with these mirrors and was able to melt lead with a mirror two or three spans in diameter. The role of the sun intrigued Glauber, for he believed that its rays were concentrated by the mirror and subsequently materialized as the lead gained weight. He believed that a like process was responsible for the generation of metals in nature (an explicit account is given in Operis mineralis, pt. 2). Astral rays were concentrated into the center of the earth, where a fiery vacuum was produced, and were then turned back to be materialized in the bowels of the earth. Glauber also described hermetic medicines in optical terminology: the most efficacious substances were those whose circumferences (virtues) had been concentrated into their original centers.

Glauber’s fascination with colored glass was closely tied to a rather attractive interpretation of the making of the philosophers’ stone. The sulfur (tincture, soul) of a metal was its color, and this must be isolated and fixed in order to effect transmutations. He argued that distillates, however subtle, remain composed of the three Paracelsian principles: salt, sulfur, and mercury. For the isolation of sulfur alone, metals must be reduced to ashes in the fire and returned to their origin for rebirth. Since their origin was sand, and since glass was made from sand, the true colors of metals would be revealed when their ashes were added to glass. The colors were then to be extracted by a sulfurous menstruum to yield the universal medicine. Glauber conceded failure in this last step, but in the course of his labors he related much useful information on the coloring of glass and rediscovered the process for ruby glass, which had been lost for many years.

Since Glauber conceived of God as eternal light, the coloring of glass was weighty with symbolic implications for him. On the last day, he believed, our bodies will be reduced to ashes, from which we will arise with clarified bodies to stand before God, who is himself pure light, and will be revealed in our true colors.

Glauber has justly been called the best practical chemist of his day and the first industrial chemist. His instructions for the improvement of laboratory technique were instrumental in preparing the way for the chemical revolution of the next century. In his own estimation, however, the final goal of his labors was the perfection of the material world, capped by the preparation of the philosophers’ stone. Glauber attempted to renew the hermetic art by tying it to specific aspects of laboratory practice, but in so doing he interpreted the symbols of alchemy so concretely as to destroy their esoteric appeal. Later alchemists understandably found him too mundane, while chemists failed to appreciate his hermetic conception of the world.


I. Original Works. The complete list of Glauber’s works is available in J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London. 1961), 343–347. His major works—Furni novi philosophici oder Beschreibung einer newerfundener Destillirkunst (Amsterdam, 1646–1649); Miraculum mundi oder Ausführliche Beschreibung der wunderbaren Natur, Art, und Eigenschafft des grossmächtigen Subiecti... (Amsterdam, 1653–1660); Pharmacopoea spagrica oder Gründlicher Beschreibung, wie man aus den Vegetabilien, Animalien, und Mineralien... gute, kräfftige und durchdringende Arztneyen zurichten und bereiten soll (Amsterdam, 1654–1668); Dess Teutschlands-Wohlfahrt (Amsterdam, 1656–1661)—consist of several pts. and appendixes published separately and at different times. German compilations appeared in 1658–1659—Opera chymica, Bücher und Schrifften... and Continuatio operum chymicorum ...—and in 1715—the much abbreviated Glauberus concentratus, oder Kern der Glauberischen Schrifften..., available in a facs. repr. (Ulm, 1961). Christopher Packe, ed., The Works of the Highly Experienced and Famous Chymist, John Rudolph Glauber ... (London, 1689), includes almost all his writings, translated into English. The translation is generally reliable, even though often translated from the Latin collected ed. rather than from the original German. Much of the moralizing and polemics has been omitted.

II. Secondary Literature. P. Walden, “Glauber,” in Günther Bugge, ed., Das Buch der grossen Chemiker, I (Berlin, 1929), 151–172, gives the best assessment of Glauber’s practical work; a shortened English trans. of Walden’s article can be found in Eduard Farber, ed., Great Chemists (New York, 1961), pp. 115–134. Glauber’s biography was in some confusion until the twentieth century, even though it can be reconstructed fairly completely from his own apologetic writings. Kurt F. Gugel, Johann Rudolph Glauber 1604–1670, Leben und Werk (Würzburg, 1955), has compiled the recent literature to give the fullest account of Glauber’s life; Gugel also gives an extensive bibliography, but his account of Glauber’s practibal work is wholly derivative from Walden. Erich Pietsch, Johann Rudolph Glauber (Munich, 1956), attempts to make Glauber’s theory of salt and fire respectable by explicating it from the standpoint of modern energy concepts. A more historical appraisal of his theory and motivation is that of H. M. E. de long, “Glauber und die Weltanschauung der Rosenkreuzer,” in Janus, 56 (1969), 278–304; however, there is little reason to believe that Glauber was a Rosicrucian.

Kathleen Ahonen

Glauber, Johann Rudolph (ca. 1604-1670)

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Glauber, Johann Rudolph (ca. 1604-1670)

German apothecary and alchemist. Glauber was born at Karlstadt and grew up in Franconia. He traveled widely in Germany seeking alchemical knowledge and eventually settled in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1648. He was a prolific writer and left many treatises on medicine and alchemy. He discovered and prepared medicines of great value to pharmacy, some of which are still in common use, for example the familiar preparation known as Glauber's salt.

He was a firm believer in the philosophers' stone and the elixir of life. Concerning the former, he stated:

"Let the benevolent reader take with him my final judgment concerning the great Stone of the Wise; let every man believe what he will and is able to comprehend. Such a work is purely the gift of God, and cannot be learned by the most acute power of human mind, if it be not assisted by the benign help of a Divine Inspiration. And of this I assure myself that in the last times, God will raise up some to whom He will open the Cabinet of Nature's Secrets, that they shall be able to do wonderful things in the world to His Glory, the which, I indeed, heartily wish to posterity that they may enjoy and use to the praise and honour of God."

According to fellow alchemist Goossen van Vreeswych, Glauber died in Amsterdam, March 14, 1670. Some of Glauber's principal works include Philosophical Furnaces; Commentary on Paracelsus; Heaven of the Philosophers, or Book of Vexation; Miraculum Mundi; The Prosperity of Germany; and Book of Fires.

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