Sunday, 31 October 2010

Togo - Venus, Lucifer and the Philosopher's Stone

Togo's main industry is phosphate mining and this small African nation is the world's fifth largest producer of phosphate rock.  Not having studied science beyond the basics at school, I decided to do a little bit of research into phosphorus and what that is exactly, in layman's terms!

A German alchemist taking the piss?

Phosphorus was discovered, or rather, identified in the late 17th century by a German alchemist called Hennig Brand (a very apt name indeed).  Brand had been trying to trying to discover the elusive 'philosopher's stone' - something of an obsession with alchemists at that time, as it was believed the philosopher's stone could turn ordinary metals into gold, thereby making its discoverer a very rich man indeed.  It was also believed that the philosopher's stone would give its owner the powers of a god and raise him beyond the capabilities of mere mortals. 

I guess Brand was working on the theory that each man has elements of god inside him, as he experimented with his own urine, boiling it, making it into a paste, leaving it in jars for days, to see what might happen to the essence and salts that urine contains.  I imagine he was quite surprised one night to find that the results of his experiment had left a sediment that glowed on contact with the atmosphere.  For a while, he may even have believed that he'd finally found the philosopher's stone but, as it turned out, he'd identified phosphorus, a potential goldmine, if he'd only known what to do with it!

So what is phosphorus and what do we use it for?

I've read the scientific definition of phosphorus and I'm none the wiser!  As far as I understand it, it's some kind of inorganic substance that can be found in rocks.  It comes in different forms, but the main two forms are white and red.  White is incredibly reactive to the atmosphere (it's the form Brand 'discovered') and isn't usually found in the open air, hence the need for phosphate mining.  It's used in the production of fertilisers and incendiary bombs, but most famously it was used in matches, as it ignites on contact with certain surfaces.  We've all seen phosphorus believe it or not, as it's that sort of bluey-white glow that you get from matches when you strike them. 

And why do I have phosphorus in my urine?

For some reason I've yet to really get my head around, the human body seems to contain traces of almost every metal and element that exists.  Thus, we naturally have a miniscule amount of phosphorus already in our bodies, mostly in our teeth and bones.  The phosphorus that Brand identified was from urine, however and, apart from the phosphorus that naturally occurs in our bodies, we are also constantly ingesting small levels of phosphorus, which is in the food we eat, getting rid of this again when we go to the toilet. 


The word phosphorus comes from the Greek for 'light bearer', which is also the Greek name for the planet Venus, which appears in the first light of the morning.  In Latin, light bearer is translated as Lucifer, which I guess most of us usually associate with the Devil and this sent me off on a spiral of thought about how the Devil has had bad press and perhaps he was originally a kind of Prometheus, ie. the one who brought knowledge (or fire) to mankind, therefore helping us become like the gods. 

Again, there are interesting parallels with Brand's desire to find the philosopher's stone and this knowledge that only the gods should have.  To this day, in countries like the Netherlands, safety matches are still referred to as Lucifers.  By the way, there are different spellings for the noun and adjective - the noun being phosphorus and the adjective being phosphorous with a third 'o' at the end.

Matchmaking, phillumenists and the Scandinavian connection

I realise this sub-title is probably going to crop up in Google searches of a different kind!  If you've ever looked closely at the head of a match, you will have noticed the sort of patches of chemical that is a combination of gum arabica, ground glass and phosphorus.  In the early days of matchmaking, white phosphorus was used, but this was incredibly dangerous, as it's reaction on striking could sometime result in mini-explosions, not to mention the damage that exposure to white phosphorus does to the human body. 

In the early days, match-sellers would suffer from a terrible disease called phossy jaw, which was a build up of phosphorus in the jawbone, due to exposure to white phosphorus.  Left untreated, this level of phosphorus would eventually lead to organ failure and death.  It was such a serious problem in 19th-century England that the matchgirls of East London went on strike in 1888 because of the hazards of their working conditions.

White phosphorus was eventually replaced by red phosphorus in match production, which was less reactive to the atmosphere and less harmful to the people who were handling matches.  This new type of match became known as the safety match and eventually most countries in the world banned the use of white phosphorus for match production. 

Interestingly, just as people who collect stamps are known as philatelists, people who collect matchboxes are know as phillumenists

For some reason the Swedes have dominated the world of safety matches and the Swedish match company is, to this day, the main player in global match production.  It was a Dane however (Hans Christian Anderson) who popularised the plight of The Little Match Girl in his phenomenally popular short story. 

Phosphorus and the Togolese economy

In many ways the fate of Togo's economy has been closely connected to the world market for phosphorus and phosphate rock.  The main company that mined phosphorus in Togo during the colonial and post-colonial periods was the Companie Togolaise de Mines de Benin.  This was famously nationalised by Eyadema, who suspected the company's involvement in his plane crash in Sarakawa in 1974. 

Phosphorus prices soared in the mid-70's, so that Togo should have really come out the other end a much richer country, but bad management meant that when prices crashed again at the end of the 1970's, Togo was left as poor as it had ever been.  Demand for phosphorus also plummeted in the mid-1990's, sending Togo's economy into a recession.  After Eyadema's demise in 2005, the phosphate industry was once again privatised and the company was renamed Société Nouvelle des Phosphates du Togo.  Phosphate mining continues to play a large role in Togo's industrial output. 

Image credits:

The painting is by the 18th century English painter, Joseph Wright and is called The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher's Stone.  The original painting hangs in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery in England.  This image is in the public domain and (therefore) copyright free. 

The photograph of the matchbox with matches was taken by me.

The amazing image of the Phosphate mine in Togo is from Wikimedia Commons and was uploaded by a wiki enthusiast called Alexandra Pugachevsky.  Thanks Alexandra for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License.  You can see the source of the image at Wikimedia Commons
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