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An Imprisoned Street Magician's Discovery Changed The World

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Johann Friedrich Böttger was a teenage street magician who was unlucky enough to be taken seriously by a very important man. That man locked Johann up for years — during which the kid made a discovery that shifted the balance of power between not just nations, but continents.

Johann Böttger didn't have a bad start in life. He was born to well-to-do goldsmith parents, lived in Berlin, and was apprenticed to a very tolerant pharmacist. Böttger was a chemist, and decided to practice chemistry at all hours and with all kinds of chemicals. He had set his sights on no less a process than turning lead and other valueless metals into gold. With enough practice under his belt, he half-convinced the people in his neighborhood that he had really accomplished the deed.


Then he took it a step further. Böttger, still a teenager, decided to start putting on a street show. He gathered a crowd around him and waved silver pieces in front of them; with a few hand gestures and some chemical solutions, he transformed these silver pieces into a single gold piece. He convinced the crowds, and they convinced the king.

King Augustus the Strong earned his nickname by breaking horseshoes with his hands, and by his skill at "fox-tossing," which is exactly what it sounds like. His conduct with poor Böttger could have earned other nicknames, like Augustus the Gullible, Augustus the Deeply In Debt, and Augustus the Short-Tempered. Böttger found himself in the custody of a king who was growing impatient with the fact that his captive alchemist did not produce the gold he needed to pay off his debts.


Böttger was allowed various experimental apparati, but none of them stood up to the heat of his desperate attempts to make gold, so he shifted the focus of his experiment to try to make heat-proof clay. This helped him find his way to Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, who also worked for the king. Between the two of them, they came up with a harder, finer clay, that was scratch-proof while still being delicate. They came up with porcelain. Porcelain was, in many ways, more important than gold. Gold could be found anywhere, but porcelain came only from China. It was a sign of prestige, and Europeans (and soon, colonials) were desperate to get their hands on it.

Böttger and Tschirnhaus managed, at last, to work out that porcelain was produced by blending a white clay, called kaolin, and a specific type of feldspar. They figured out how hot the furnace used to produce porcelain had to be, and they managed to discover the right way to glaze the porcelain pots. After seven years, Böttger handed something worth its weight in gold to the king and won (a limited amount of) freedom.


The discovery of porcelain didn't end Europe's need for trade with China, as there were many more inventions, goods, and resources that Europeans were desperate to get their hands on. Still, the European discovery of porcelain not only changed Europe's relationship with China, but its internal balance of power. The race to duplicate Böttger and Tschirnhaus's results was on, as was the race to acquire territories rich in kaolin and feldspar. And all because a street magician made a king believe he could make gold from silver.

Anyone want to lock up David Blaine?

[Via The Disappearing Spoon, Johann Friedrich Böttger, The First Porcelain Produced in Europe]