Kunckel, Johann

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Kunckel, Johann

(b. Hutten, Schleswig—Holstein GErmany, 1630 [possible 1638]; d. Stockholm, Sweden [or nearby], 1702 [or 20 March 1703])


The details of Kunckel’s life are obscure and are gleaned principally form his own writings. He was the son of an alchemist in the service of Duke Frederick of Holstein and learned chemistry from his father and practical chemistry from pharmacists and glassworks. In his twnties (the year, as is usual with Kunckel, is uncertain) he was in the service of Dukes Franz Carl and Julius Heinrich of SachsenLauenburg as pharmacists and chamberlain. About 1667 he became chemist and gentleman of the bedchamber to Johann Georg II, elector of Saxony, where there was an active alchemical circle. At Dresden he also learned the chemistry of glass manufacture.

After about ten years Kunckle lost his job (though the calumines of his enemies, in his view); he says he then taught chemistry at Wittenberg. In 1679 he was invited by Frderick william, elector of Brandenburg, to become head of his chemical laboratory at Berlin and possibly director of the glassworks there. On the elector’s death in 1688 he entered the service of King Charlge XI of Sweden, as minister of mines; he was ennobled as Baron von Loewenstern in 1693, in which year he also became a member of the Academia Ca\esarea Leopoldina. He probably remained in stockholm until his death.

Kunckel claimed always to be a follower of the experimental method, and his work that was best known outside Germany was his Chymische Anmerckungen of 1677, which received the Latin title Philosophia chemica experimenti confirmata, a name carried into its English title. His works are indeed filled with chemical fact, discovery, and observation, if not always with true experiment. his greatest theoretical interest was in promulgating the view that all fixed salts are the same, an opinion he carried over into his treatment of the manufacture of glass; he was of his treatment of the manfacture of glass; he was onf course correct in thinking that many plant produce potash but was unaware that seaside plants produce soda. Alkali salt he regarded as “the most unviersal soda. Alkali salt he regarded as “the most universal Salt of all Metals and Minerals ... the locak and key of all Metals” (An Experimental Confirmation of Chymical phiolosphy, ch. 14), Thus mercury, he thought, was composed of “a Water and a Salt”; sulfur “first consists in a certain fatness of the Earth, which is a kind of combustible Oil, the like of which is found in all vegetables; and then in a fix’d and volatile Salt, and a certain gross Earthiness,” He did no think that sulfur was the principle of flame, for “where there is Heat, there is Acid where there is Flame or Light, there is volatiles salt”.

Kunckl’s views are patently a mixture derived from alchemy crossed with some rational natural philosophy and are not very far removed from those of his contemporary Becher. He belongs firmly to the late seventeenth—century German chemical tradition, and he notable only for the keenness of his interest in practical chemistry. He evolved or adopted numerous recipes for the preparation of substance and displayed a good deal of common sense in discussing their problem nature. Like many men of his time he despised the alchemists for their mysticism while including to regard their aims as rational. Certainly he though highly of aurum potable a as a medicine and belied that although nothing could be created or de novo, yet base metals could be transformed ort converted into gold. At the same time he pointed out the fallacy of the universal solvent: it would dissolve the vessels in which it is made. These severer views are found inlu in the posthumously published Collegium physico-chymicum experimental and were perhaps the results of a lifetimes’s not altogether happy association with alchemists.

Kunckel’s part in the discovery of phosphorus is not altogether clear, but certainly enhanced his reputation. He described his own view of the affair in hi Collegium; in 1678 he published an account of “his” phosphorus (Oeffentiliche Zuschrift von dem Phosphor mirabili) and it medical properties, but not of its method of prapartion. It seems probable that Kunckel’s statment that he saw Henning Brand’s phosphorus, got from him the hint that it was made from urine, and then proceeded on his own is true—it is mvedry l;ike the accounts of J. D. Krafft (who, at Kunckel’s suggestion, bought the secres from Brand) and of Robert Boyle, who was the first to publish the method of preparation. it is interesting that Leibinz, in his Historic inventions phosphor (1710), thought Kunckel’s experiments more scientifically useful than Boyle’s presumably because they were more closely realted to medicine. Kunckel’s claim for priority was widely accepted on the Continent, and phosphorus was often associated with his name.

In 1679 Kunckel published a work which was much read for the next century and which comprised essentially a series of essays on aspects of glassmaking. This was a translation into German of Christrpher Merret’s Latin edition of Antonio Neri’s L’arte vetraria of Kunckel preserved Merret’s m notes and added further notes as weel as a section on the making of colored glass, together with several short treatises on related topics by other German writers. Its translation into French he in the mid-eighteenth century added considerably to Kunckel’s reputation.

Kunckel was cleanly un able practical chemist, quick tgo seize upon new discoveries. His works had considerable appeal to his Germaic contemporaries. The reaction in England was respectful; when the elector of Brandenburg sent a copy of the controversial Chymischer probier-Stein to the Royal Society, to which it was dedicated, in 1684, the Society asked Boyle to have a Latin abstract made; an it listened to a summary by Frederick Slare, which was perhaps what was printed in the Philosophical Transsactions. But Boyle obviously though poorly of it and delivered its author a stinging rebuke, declaring that the Society had not yet got to “framing systems” (T. Birch, History of the Royal Society, IV [London, 17527], 325–326, notes). The only other work of Kunckel’s to be transalted into English is the and rational Chymische Anmerckungen. But his main appeal was to those who admired German Chemistry of the to rank high in the history of seveenth-century chemistry.


I. Original Works. Kunckel’s works appeared originally in German; many were soon translated, usually into Latin, which complicates his bibligrophy. His earliest work was Nuötzliche Observations oder Anmerckungen von den Fixen und flöchtigen Salzen, Auro und Argento potabili spiritu mundi (Hamburg, 1676), trans, aas Untiles observations sive animadversiones de salibus fisix & volatilibus. . . (London, 1677), trans into Latin as Cubeiculari intimi et chymici philosophia chemica experiments confirmata,. . . sometimes abbr, as Philosophic chemica . . . (London—Rotterdam, 1678; Amsterdam, 1694), and into English aas “An Experimental Confirmation of Chymical Philosophy,” in Pyrotechnical Discoreses (London, 1705). His reputation was established by Oeffetliche Zushrift von dem Phosoloro mirabili und desen leucterned Wunder-Piluledn (Wittenberg, 1678; the BM copy is Leipzig, 1680 [?](, which was never translated, Next to be published was his trans. ans ed. of Neri, with addtions, Ars vitraria experimetalis, in German (Amsterdam–Danzing, 1679), trans, into French by Baron d’Holbach as Art de la verrerie de Neri, Merret et kunckel (Paris, 1752), His Epistola contra spititum vini sine acido, datesd Berlin, 1681, may have been issued separately it is usually found annexed to Chymischer Probier Stein de Acido & urinoso, Sale calid. & frigisd, Contra Herrn Doct, Voigts Spirirt. Vini vindicatum (Berlin, 1684, 1685 [?], 1686, 1696); there id a long review in philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 15 (1685–18686), 896–914, with an English trans, of Kunckel’s “Address to the Royal Soceity,” The remainted of Kunckel’s work was published postumoulsy in Collegium physico–chymicum experimentale, oder Laboratorium chymicum (Hamburg–Leipzing, 1716, 17222; Hamburg, 1738; Berlin, 1767). V, curose chymiche Trataötlein) Frnakfurt–Leipzig, 1721) contains Chymische Anmerckungen, Nuötzliche Observations, Epistola,De phosphoro mirabili, and Probier-Stein, all in German.

II. Secondary Literature There is a nearly complete bibliographical account with comment in j. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, in J. R. Partington, Ferdinnand Hoefer, History de la chimie (Paris, 1866), II, 191–205, has a perhaps more nalanced account, with useful quaotations in French. Articles include Tenney L. Davis, “Kunckel and the Early History of phisphorus,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 4 (1927), 11045–1113; and “Kunckel’s Discovery of Fulminate,” in Army Ordnance, 7 (1926), 62, There is a biographical essay in Danish by Axel Helne, “Johann Kunckel von Lowenstern (1630–1702),” in Tidsskrifit voer Industri (1912), with illustraiomns, More recent is H. Maurch, “Johann Kunckel: 1630–1703;” in Deutsches Museum Abhandlungen und Berichte, 5 , no. 2 (1933), 31–64, with illustrations.

Marie Boas Hall