1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Becher, Johann Joachim

BECHER, JOHANN JOACHIM (1635-1682), German chemist, physician, scholar and adventurer, was born at Spires in 1635. His father, a Lutheran minister, died while he was yet a child, leaving a widow and three children. The mother married again; the stepfather spent the tiny patrimony of the children; and at the age of thirteen Becher found himself responsible not only for his own support but also for that of his mother and brothers. He learned and practised several small handicrafts, and devoting his nights to study of the most miscellaneous description earned a pittance by teaching. In 1654, at the age of nineteen, he published an edition of Salzthal’s Tractatus de lapide trismegisto; his Metallurgia followed in 1660; and the next year appeared his Character pro notitia linguarum universali, in which he gives 10,000 words for use as a universal language. In 1663 he published his Oedipum Chemicum and a book on animals, plants and minerals (Thier- Kräuter- und Bergbuch). At the same time he was full of schemes, practical and unpractical. He negotiated with the elector palatine for the establishment of factories at Mannheim; suggested to the elector of Bavaria the creation of German colonies in Guiana and the West Indies; and brought down upon himself the wrath of the Munich merchants by planning a government monopoly of cloth manufacture and of trade. He fled from Munich, but found a ready welcome elsewhere. In 1666 he was appointed teacher of medicine at Mainz and body-physician to the archbishop-elector; and the same year he was made councillor of commerce (Commerzienrat) at Vienna, where he had gained the powerful support of Albrecht, Count Zinzendorf, prime minister and grand chamberlain of the emperor Leopold I. Sent by the emperor on a mission to Holland, he there wrote in ten days his Methodus Didactica, which was followed by the Regeln der Christlichen Bundesgenossenschaft and the Politischer Discurs vom Auf- und Abblühen der Städte. In 1669 he published his Physika subterranea, and the same year was engaged with the count of Hanau in a scheme for settling a large territory between the Orinoco and the Amazon. Meanwhile he had been appointed physician to the elector of Bavaria; but in 1670 he was again in Vienna advising on the establishment of a silk factory and propounding schemes for a great company to trade with the Low Countries and for a canal to unite the Rhine and Danube. He then returned to Bavaria, and his absence bringing him into ill odour at Vienna, he complained of the incompetence of the council of commerce and dedicated a tract on trade (Commercien-Tractat) to the emperor Leopold. His Psychosophia followed, and “An invitation to a psychological community” (Einladung zu einer psychologischen Societät), for the realization of which Duke Gustavus Adolphus of Mecklenburg-Gustrow (d. 1695) offered him in 1674 a site in his duchy. The plan came to nothing, and next year Becher was again busy at Vienna, trying to transmute Danube sand into gold, and writing his Theses chemicae veritatem transmutationis metallorum evincentes. For some reason he incurred the disfavour of Zinzendorf and fled to Holland, where with the aid of the government he continued his experiments. Pursued even there by the resentment of his former patron, he crossed to England, whence he visited the mines of Scotland at the request of Prince Rupert. He afterwards went for the same purpose to Cornwall, where he spent a year. At the beginning of 1680 he presented a paper to the Royal Society, De nova temporis dimetiendi ratione et accurata horologiorum constructione, in which he attempted to deprive Huygens of the honour of applying the pendulum to the measurement of time. The views of Becher on the composition of substances mark little essential advance on those of the two preceding centuries, and the three elements or principles of salt, mercury and sulphur reappear as the vitrifiable, the mercurial and the combustible earths. When a substance was burnt he supposed that the last of these, the terra pinguis, was liberated, and this conception is the basis on which G. E. Stahl founded his doctrine of “phlogiston.” His ideas and experiments on the nature of minerals and other substances are voluminously set forth in his Physica Subterranea (Frankfort, 1669); an edition of this, published at Leipzig in 1703, contains two supplements (Experimentum chymicum novum and Demonstratio Philosophica), proving the truth and possibility of transmuting metals, Experimentum novum ae curiosum de minera arenaria perpetua, the paper on timepieces already mentioned and also Specimen Becherianum, a summary of his doctrines by Stahl, who in the preface acknowledges indebtedness to him in the words Becheriana sunt quae profero. At Falmouth he wrote his Laboratorium portabile and at Truro the Alphabetum minerale. In 1682 he returned to London, where he wrote the Chemischer Glückshafen oder grosse Concordanz und Collection von 1500 Processen and died in October of the same year.