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
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
... 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
For sources and more detail, see the greatly revised version of
this episode, Episode 2088.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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