Becher, Johann Joachim
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Related TopicsChymistry (alchemy/chemistry) Iatrochemistry Lavoisier, Antoine-Laurent Mercantilism Paracelsus and Paracelsianism Phlogiston theory Stahl, Georg Ernst Zincke, Georg Heinrich
Best known for his influences on the theory of phlogiston, Johann Joachim Becher (1635–1682) was a seventeenth-century polymath whose works embraced diverse fields such as medicine, chemistry, philology, pedagogy, economical politics, ethics, and theology (Hassinger 1951; Debus 1970; Haltung 2001; Smith 2008). In service to German territorial princes impoverished by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), Becher pursued empirical study of nature and its practical application in favor of the state economy. His mercantilist politics and activities represented a court culture of that age where natural philosophy – outside of academic institutions – found shelter under the princely patronage, serving its practical and commercial objectives (Frühsorge and Strasser 1993; Smith 1994, 2000).
The son of a Lutheran pastor in Speyer, Becher had little formal education in his formative years. After wandering in Europe to acquire mechanical and chemical expertise, followed by conversion to Roman Catholicism, he was appointed in 1660 to a court physician and mathematician by the Archbishop and Elector Johann Philipp von Schönborn (1605–1673) in Mainz. After receiving a doctorate of medicine at the local faculty in 1661, he succeeded the professorship from Ludwig von Hörnigk (1600–1667) in 1663, whose daughter, Maria Veronika, Becher had married in 1662. During the Mainz period, his early works were published, including his metallurgical one, Naturkündingung der Metallen (Becher 1661b), and the tract on the universal language, Character pro Notitia Linguarum Universali (Becher 1661a). His interests in alchemical medicine (iatrochemistry) appeared in his Parnassus Medicinalis Illustratis (Becher 1662).
As early as in 1664, he left Mainz. After serving briefly in Mannheim, Becher arrived in Munich to serve the Bavarian Elector Ferdinand Maria (1636–1679) as his medicus et mathematicus until 1670. One of his most influential works in natural philosophy, Actorum Laboratorii Chymici Monacensis, seu Physicae subterraneae, was devoted to the elector who provided him with one of the most distinguished laboratories in Europe (Becher 1669). In his Methodus didactica, Becher appeared as reformer of pedagogy, calling for civil education on behalf of the absolute sovereign (Becher 1668a). His Politischer Discurs offers his mercantilist ideas, expounding an ideal society where the “merchant-manufacturer“(Verläger) should play a central role for the absolute monarchy (Becher 1668b; Teich 1990).
Eager to realize his mercantilist projects, Becher was engaged in developing domestic manufacturing (silk) and foreign trade in his Munich years. Although his ambitious project of organizing a colonial trade in South America remained unrealized, Becher was successful in drawing attention from the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Leopold I (1640–1705), in Vienna. There he had established as early as in 1666 a collegium commercium, a body for managing commerce and trades in the Habsburg territories. From 1670, as Kommerzienrat (commercial councilor) and alchemical adviser to the emperor (Smith 1990), Becher endeavored to found the Kunst- und Werckhauß (art- and workhouse): his project on a manufactory equipped with chemical laboratory, in which commercial, educational, and research activities should be combined, remained incomplete because of the lack of financial sustenance (Teich 1988). After a series of failures in trade politics, Becher left Vienna in 1677.
Through Mecklenburg-Güstrow and Holland, Becher finally found in 1680 his last foothold in England. He was involved in a survey on mines in Cornwall and tried to enter the Royal Academy in vain. Becher died in London in 1682. His lifelong activities and speculations were summarized in his late works such as his Chymischer Glücks-Hafen, a collection of alchemical recipes and plans (Becher 1682a), as well as Närrische Weißheit und Weise Narrheit, an inventory of his inventions and projects (Becher 1682b). His epistemological speculations and utopian ideas resulted in his Psychosophia (Becher 1678), while some of his alchemical treatises were published posthumously in Tripus Hermeticus Fatidicus (Becher 1689).
Becher’s active and inventive life and character found admirers in later ages (Bucher 1722). He exerted historical impacts especially on two disciplines: economy and chemistry. After it was republished by the German cameralist Georg Heinrich Zincke (1692–1769) in 1754, his Politischer Discurs was renowned as essential literature in the Kameralwissenschaft (cameral science) of the eighteenth century, establishing Becher’s profile as an early modern exponent of mercantilism (Steinhüser 1931; Dittrich 1974; Brückner 1977).
Meanwhile his name was also settled in the history of chemistry. In 1703 the medical professor in Halle, Georg Ernst Stahl (1660–1734), republished Becher’s Physica Subterranea by adding his own treatise Specimen Beccherianum (Becher 1703). Drawing on Becher’s speculation of three earths (terra lapidea, terra fluida, and terra pinguis), which had been derived from the matter theory (tria prima) of Paracelsus (1493/1494–1541), Stahl interpreted Becher’s notion of terra pinguis (fatty earth) into an element essential for combustion, named phlogiston (Partington 1961; Meinel 1983; Clericuzio 2000). As this theoretical construct became influential through the century, Becher became renowned as an original contributor to the phlogiston theory, which later, however, gave way to the oxygen theory developed by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794).
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