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Meissen Chymistry

Roald Hoffmann

The Alchemical Fire

The first of the three men whose talents joined in the development of European porcelain was Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who was besotted by Chinese porcelain. Serving him was Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, an aristocratic natural philosopher and polymath with a practical bent. He wrote on mathematics, but also learned how to make soft-paste porcelain in France and built giant burning-lenses that reached the highest temperatures yet observed.

The third man was Johann Friedrich Böttger, a young alchemist in the classical vein, who believed in the central philosophy of alchemy (and chemistry), that of essential transformation. He was also a very good, practiced chemist, familiar with metallurgical techniques and the arts of pharmacy. To be an alchemist at this time was a precarious profession, a calling that required great political skill. To gain patronage, one had to promise gold or medical cures. To keep it, one had to practice, with refinement and skill, the art of eternal, creative procrastination: always assuring more, always asking for more. No wonder alchemists were always on the move! As in the story of the goose that laid golden eggs—were the alchemist to succeed, his patron would not want to lose such an economic force—Augustus imprisoned Böttger in the Saxonian capital of Dresden. The incarceration was, in part, punishment for the failure to produce gold, in part, security of the supply, should Böttger succeed.

 Figure 3. Alchemical failure . . .Click to Enlarge Image

At stake was not just Augustus's displeasure. Figure 3 is a reproduction of a broadside, a contemporary account of what happened to a Neapolitan alchemist, Count Domenico Emanuele Cajetano, who was found cheating. He was hanged. Augustus’s mien—you can see why he was called "the Strong"—is captured in a statuette of the King, made in Böttger's lifetime from a marvelous red stoneware the alchemist labored to perfect.

Figure 4. Two early pieces from Meissen . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Tschirnhaus convinced Augustus to put Böttger to the task of making "white gold," or porcelain. It took only two years to do so, when so many other attempts had failed, because of a felicitous conjunction of materials and people. First, there were nearby deposits of kaolin that were known to Tschirnhaus. This Saxonian clay lacked the traces of potash mica that lent plasticity to its Chinese counterpart and allowed Eastern potters to experiment with more curvaceous forms. Still, this clay and no other was the essence of porcelain. Next, Böttger could build kilns, in them "the gehennical fire," that could reach the requisite high temperatures. And finally, talent to decorate the porcelain existed among the artists at Augustus’s Dresden court. Figure 4 shows a Meissen vase that imitates Japanese Arita porcelain (left); in time unique decorative modes and figurines (right) were elaborated.

But most of all, the success of the project was due to the careful experimentation of the alchemist-turned-industrial-chemist. Set on his way by Tschirnhaus (who died in 1708), Böttger first made true, white porcelain in 1709 at the age of 27. In 1710 the porcelain manufactory moved 15 miles down the Elbe River to the city of Meissen and became known by that name. By 1713 it was an economic success.

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