Ercker (Also Erckner or Erckel), Lazarus

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Ercker (Also Erckner or Erckel), Lazarus

(b. Annaberg, Saxony, ca. 1530; d. Prague, Bohemia, 1594)

Chemistry, metallurgy.

Ercker was the son of Asmus Erckel. After finishing school at Annaberg, he studied at the University of Wittenberg in 1547–1548. He married Anna Canitz on 7 October 1554, and through the help of one of his wife’s relatives, a doctor named Johann Neef, he was appointed assayer at Dresden by Elector Augustus, an enthusiastic admirer of alchemy and metallurgy. A year later he became chief consultant and supervisor in all matters relating to the mineral arts and mint affairs for Freiberg, Annaberg, and Schneeberg but soon was demoted, for unknown reasons, to warden of the mint at Annaberg. In the spring of 1558 he made a trip to the Tyrol to become acquainted with its mines and foundries, and in the autumn of the same year Prince Henry of Brunswick made him first warden and then master of the mint at Goslar.

After the death of his wife in 1567 Ercker returned to Dresden, where he sought a position with Elector Augustus of Saxony but failed because of intrigue and an unsuccessful attempt to obtain silver from poor ores. He then went to Prague, where his brother-in-law, Casper Richter, was a minter and, through the latter’s support, was appointed control tester at Kutna Hora.

In 1574 Ercker published (at Prague) his famous book Beschreibung allerfürnemisten mineralischen Ertzt. This brought him to the attention of Emperor Maximilian II, who named him his courier for mining affairs and clerk in the Supreme Office of the Bohemian crown.

During the reign of the next emperor, Rudolf II, a well-known patron of alchemists, Ercker became chief inspector of mines and was knighted on 10 March 1586, receiving the title von Schreckenfels. The motto on his coat of arms was “Erst Prob’s dann Lob’s Ercker’s second wife, Susanna, for many years managed the mint at Kutna Hora and had the title manager-mistress of the mint. Both of his sons, Joachim and Hans, were assayers.

Through his various posts Ercker acquired extensive experience in chemistry and metallurgy. His first work was Probierbuchlein (1556), dedicated to Augustus. In 1563 he wrote Münzbuch and in 1569 a book on the testing of ores, Zkouśeni rud. In 1574 Ercker published his magnum opus, Beschreibung allerfürnemisten mineralischen Ertzt. The only one of Ercker’s works to contain many drawings, it presents a systematic review of the methods of testing alloys and minerals of silver, gold, copper, antimony, mercury, bismuth, and lead; of obtaining and refining these metals, as well as of obtaining acids, salts, and other compounds. The last chapter is devoted to saltpeter. Ercker described laboratory procedures and equipment, gave an account of preparing the cupel, of constructing furnaces, and of the assaying balance and the method of operating it. He used as his model Agricola’s De re metallica, yet he was quite original and included only the procedures he himself had tested. Ercker was so hostile to alchemy that he did not use alchemical symbols, although his Probier buchlein (1556) included a full list of them.

Ercker’s Beschreibung may be regarded as the first manual of analytical and metallurgical chemistry. Of particular interest to the historian of science is his observation that a cupel containing copper and lead weighs more after roasting in a furnace than before, which, says Ercker, although it is of no importance to the assayer, is surprising (bk. I.)

Ercker maintained that precipitating copper from a solution by means of iron does not mean that iron becomes copper and that transmutation takes place; that copper sets silver free from a solution, and if one wants to precipitate copper and silver from solutions of nitrates, one should use iron plates and copper plates; and that iron reduces copper from its solution. This had already been written by Alexander Suchten in Tractatus secundum de antimonio (ca. 1570, published posthumously in 1604): “Venus so das Eisen aus dem Vitriol reducirt hat.” ercker’s account of the fact that zinc precipitates other metals from solutions, cited by J. R. Partington, is to be found only in the 1684 and later editions and therefore was added by an unknown commentator.

Ercker also discovered a new method of refining gold; an exact description was sent to Augustus but is not extant. Ercker’s book inspired Lohneyss, Glauber, and others in their own writings on assaying.


I. Original Works. Ercker’s writings include Münzbuch, wie es mit den Münzen gehalten sind (1563); Beschreibung allerfurnemisten mineralischen Ertzt und Berck-wercksarten.... (Prague, 1574; Frankfurt, 1580, 1598, 1623, 1629); and Aula subterranea alias Probierbuch Herrn Lasari Erckers (Frankfurt, 1672, 1648, 1703, 1736). The Beschreibung was translated into English by John Pettus as Fleta minor, the Laws of Art and Nature (London, 1683, 1686, 1689) and appeared in a more modern version as Treatise on Ores and Assaying (Chicago, 1951); into modern German as Beschreibung der allevornehmsten mineralischen Erze und Bergwerksarten vom Jahre 1580 (Berlin, 1960), Freiberger Forschungshefte D34; and into Dutch as Uytvoerige Operinge der onderaarolsche Wereld (The Hahue, 1745).

The MS of the Probierbuchlein is in the Sachsisches Landesbibliothek, Dresden, MS J343; that of the Münbuch, in the Herzog Augustus Bibliothek, Wolfenbuttel, MS 2728; and that of Zkouśeni rud in the National Archives, Prague, MS 3053.

II. Secondary Literature. On Ercker’s life and work, see Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, VI (1885), 214; E.V. Armstrong and H. S. Lukens, “Lazarus Ercker and His “Probierbuch’, Sir John Pettus and His ‘Fleta Minor’”, in Journal of Chemical Education, 16 (1939), 553–562; P.R. Beierlein, Lazarus Ercker, Bergmann, Hüttenmann und Münzmeister in 16. Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1955); and in Beschreibung der allervornehmsten mineralischen Erze und Bergwerksarten vom Jahre 1580 (Berlin, 1960), passim. Beierlein’s is the best biography (although he consulted only the Landesarchiv in Dresden), but the chemical commentary on Ercker’s treatise is incomplete and often in error. See also J. Ferguson, in Bibliotheca Chemical, I (Glasgow, 1906), 242–245; J. R. Partington, A History of chemistry (London, 1961), 104–107; and A. Wray, in Geschichte der Chemie (Prague, 1902), p. 91.

Much material concerning Ercker’s activity in Bohemia in 1583–1593, none of which has yet been used, is in the National Archives, Prague, Prazska Mincownia collection, boxes 17–25 (1583–1593). Several letters from Ercker to Wilhelm Rosenberg, burgrave of Prague, are in the Archives of Třeboň, Czechoslovakia. There should also be documents concerning him in the archives of Goslar, Brunswick, and Wolfenbüttel. All the material in the Landesarchiv, Dresden, was used by Beierlein in his study of Ercker.

WŁodzimierz Hubicki