Skip to main content
No. 293:
Johann Joachim Becher

Today, a 17th-century genius searches for gold. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Johann Joachim Becher was born in Germany in 1635. He lived right through the middle of the 17th century, and his life helps explain that remarkable time. Becher edited an alchemical tract when he was only 19. He went on writing for the rest of his life. And what did he write about? In an odd way, his whole life revolved around gold. His first book, published when he was 26, established him as a metallurgical chemist.

He created a form of alchemy that fathered the phlogiston theory. It was Becher who started the progression of ideas that led to modern thermodynamics.

But his mind was too restless to stay with just one thing. He went on to become an advisor to the Elector of Bavaria. In Munich he argued that governments should strictly control the flow of goods and money -- that colonies should make up deficits with raw materials -- chiefly with gold. He was one of the first theorists of Mercantilism.

The merchants of Munich ran him out of town for his radical ideas. So he went to Vienna to publish a book titled Political Discourse. There he was jailed for protesting the importation of French goods. Next he proposed building the Rhine-Danube Canal to facilitate trade with the Dutch. Europeans are still discussing that project.

By 1678 he was in Holland trying to sell the Dutch assembly on a process for extracting gold from sea sand. He built a small demonstration process. Then he suddenly deserted his family and ran to England without building the pilot plant.

Becher's last book was a chemistry text published in 1682 -- the same year he died. Its 1500 chemical processes included one for making a philosopher's stone to turn lead into gold.

Two years later Newton wrote the Principia, and the rules of science changed. By the time Becher died, Spain had most grievously misread Mercantilism. She'd stolen all the gold from her Central American colonies and spent it without building up internal technologies. Now Spain was destitute.

But that wasn't Becher's worry. He left us this quotation:

... chemists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapor, soot and flame, poisons and poverty, yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly, that [I'd die before I'd] change places with the Persian King.

In the end, Becher's theories didn't stand the test of time. He'd ridden all the wrong horses. Still, he'd stirred the pot of 17th-century thinking. He'd moved us along the road to new science, new government, and new economics -- to a world far less vulnerable to the empty promises of gold.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For sources and more detail, see the greatly revised version of this episode, Episode 2088.