Alchemists’ legacy: European Porcelain technology

Goldmachertinktur. This German term means “tincture that makes gold”, which is the emblematic mission of the European Alchemists during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; these entrepreneurial chemists, botanists and ,yes, physicians too, were eagerly trying to convert some basic metals like copper into the much sought-after gold. Contrary to the widely held belief now that they were societal outcasts hiding in dark cellars to ply their shameful trade away from prying eyes, they were the protégés of the nobility and clergy, united in their so sickening coveting of riches.

Note. This image was taken from Wikimedia Commons. It shows two of the oldest allegorical  symbols used by the Alchemists:

a) Raven or Black Crow: symbol of the departure from our physical world and our arrival, with an intermediary stage in Darkness, into our own world of Self-Enlightenment.

b) Ouroboros, the serpent that is eating its tail, is a symbol of the concept of Eternity and the Endless Return.

From Aurora Consurgens manuscript, Zurich exemplar – DOI=10.5076/e-codices-zbz-Ms-Rh-0172 – URL=

The most important legacy of the Alchemists to our modern age has been the design of various experimental methods that could be reproduced by other parties, even if they turned out to be resoundingly failed attempts for the most part. They took distance from the citizenry’s magical thinking and the superstitious framework, prodded by the states’ authority and theological dogma, in order to plow the scientific pathways. In a series of articles, we will recount what we believe are the major contributions of Alchemists to our modern society; we invite our readers to suggest themes.

Porcelain is a ceramic that is made by heating special materials, including kaolin, at extremely high temperatures—1,200-1400 degrees Celsius’ invented by the Chinese approx. 2,000 years ago, it slowly evolved in Asia until reaching perfection. It became the chosen ornament for the European nobles’ tableware, eager to show off; many factories in the Old Continent tried to replicate the process but they failed.

Note. This image was taken form Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Friedrich Bottger was born on February 4th , 1682 in Schleiz, Germany, and passed away in Dresden on March 13th , 1719 in the same country; he was the son of the town’s mint master (a very powerful public servant) and the daughter of a Magdeburg counsellor. When she became a widow, she re-married with the town’s major engineer, which explains his sophisticated education, a rarity in those times. When he was only 18 years old, he became an apprentice of Herr Zorn, a famous alchemist in Berlin, and he locked himself in a cave to experiment his many recipes.

A spy for King Frederick I of Prussia—a voracious hoarder of precious metals to fund the mercenary armies he used in his campaigns of annexation—whispered in his ear that there was “a young lad claiming that he had the philosopher’s stone”, he quickly ordered his detention; they did grab him, but Bottger managed to escape. However, they did not return him to Frederick I, but transferred to Dresden where he was imprisoned by the equally ruthless Augustus II, King of Saxony and Poland. Kept in “protective custody” in a dark dungeon, Bottger toiled tirelessly for years. After many failures, King Augustus II ordered him to join forces with a colleague.

Note. This image was taken from Wikimedia Commons.

By Martin Bernigeroth – Stich von M. Bernigeroth, Kupferstichkabinett Dresden, Public Domain,

Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus was born on April 10th, 1651, in Kieslingswalde, Germany and passed away on October 11th , 1708; he was a prolific mathematician, physicist, physician and philosopher. He is credited with inventing the Tschirnhaus transformation, a key mathematical equation still in use today. During his formation years, he travelled extensively in all of Europe, meeting John Collins, Espinoza, and Colbert amongst many others; he visited the Saint-Cloud soft paste porcelain factory in 1701, becoming a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences. In his 1678 philosophical treatise Medicina Mentis, he actively promoted the potentiating match of mathematics and physics.

In their paper, Queiroz and Agathopoulos wrote: “By 1682, he studied theoretically the envelope of light beams emitted from a point source after reflection on a parabolic surface…as a preliminary step towards the development of large burning lens and mirrors…The use of such equipment allowed him to reach temperatures within 1,500-2,000 degrees Celsius, higher than he could achieve in contemporary combustion furnaces…The method was welcome in laboratory research because the sample could be easily observed and many trials could run in a short time.” Believing that porcelain was in fact “a glass” he mixed clay and fusible materials (flux) Finally he could create “some kind of porcelain”, which he presented to Augustus II. The King decided to build a factory in Meissen and ordered Bottger to join the team. Afraid that he would end up dead like many other adventurous entrepreneurs like him, Bottger finally relented to the King’s wish and teamed up with Tschirnhaus.

The big breakthrough in the production of porcelain came in 1708 when two critical shipments of minerals arrived at the factory:

  1. Kaolin—a fine, pure white clay that had been discovered earlier by Ohain and Bartholomai, a physician that liked to dabble in Botanics.
  2. White Alabaster—mixed with two clays and silica, it was particularly useful.

After more experimentation, two more components were assigned to the mixture:

  1. China Stone—a volcanic residue.
  2. Quartz—at 20% concentration.

When the four ingredients were mixed together at high temperature, porcelain arose.

Tschirnhaus passed away 1708 and his disciple Bottger took over the operations, until he could present a “piece of porcelain” to Augustus II in 1709. Even though, Bottger was suspiciously credited with its  discovery, the same Bottger found a piece of perfect porcelain in Tschirnhaus’ house, after it had been vandalized. Fearing for the safety of the team that invented porcelain, the King decided to build a factory in Meissen with security measures. But eventually someone stole the recipe and fled.

A mathematician/philosopher and a wunderkind/alchemist discovered the porcelain.

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