1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 30

Phillip grinned. “It is obvious you’ve never had to concern yourself with the economics of running a laboratory. Because if you had, you would know that the price of fuel goes up in the winter.”

“How does the price of fuel going up in winter lead to you making acidum salis and aqua fortis from Oil of Vitriol?”

“It takes as much fuel to make Oil of Vitriol from green vitriol as it does to make acidum salis or aqua fortis from green vitriol. But you can never be sure how much of any acid you need or can sell. With my new process, as long as I have Oil of Vitriol, I can make aqua fortis and acidum salis on demand. And I’ll never be left with surplus stock.” Phillip paused to glare at the furnace. “Of course, it still wouldn’t hurt for the furnace to be a little more efficient.”

Johann looked at the furnace. It didn’t look any different from the half-dozen or so other furnaces he’d seen. “Why haven’t you done something about improving it?”

“I’ve been busy,” Phillip said defensively before going on to explain what he was doing with his retorts.

Johann was interested in the idea that furnaces could have different efficiencies, but he didn’t have any time to think about that as he tried to keep up with Dr. Gribbleflotz. The Doctor was everywhere as he monitored the numerous retorts while also managing the fire in the furnace, and prepared other compounds on his bench.

“Why are you doing that? Johann found himself asking later in the day as he watched Dr. Gribbleflotz dissolving saltpetre in warm water.

“The secret of purer acids is purer ingredients,” Phillip said. “By purifying my saltpetre before I mix it with the Oil of Vitriol, I get a much purer aqua fortis.”

“Does purer saltpetre make better gunpowder?” Johann wondered aloud.

“It does,” Phillip answered. “Any variation from the standard seventy-five to fifteen to ten formulation is usually due to impurities in the ingredients, especially of the saltpetre. Usually the improvement in performance doesn’t justify the effort to make the Saltpetre purer.”

“You sound as if you’ve tested that theory,” Johann said.

“I have.” Phillip related his experiences in Augsburg during his apprenticeship, much to Johann’s delight.

“Could you make some gunpowder?” Johann asked.

“Gunpowder isn’t something to fool around with,” Phillip warned. “I’ve seen men torn apart by explosions, and I have nightmares imagining what it must have been like at Wimpfen last May when that cannon-shot blew up the magazine of the forces of the Margrave of Baden-Durlach.”

Johann was more interested in the practicalities of the situation rather than the physical injuries sustained. “How does that work?” he protested. “Surely a cannon-shot can’t set off a barrel of gunpowder.”

“No, it can’t,” Phillip agreed. “It isn’t hot enough. However, a sufficiently large cannon ball hitting a barrel of gunpowder can easily turn it into a cloud of dust and stave pieces.”

“How does a cloud of dust cause an explosion?”

Phillip looked around his laboratory. “Get that stool and place it in the middle of the room.”

While Johann was moving the stool Phillip opened a clay pot and measured some fine black powder onto a sheet of paper. “Light the candle and stand the candlestick on the stool,” Phillip directed as he approached the stool.

With the lit candle standing on the stool Phillip stepped closer to the flame and blew on the paper in his hands. The fine black powder was dispersed in a cloud of fine particles, until the first one hit the flame, then the whole lot erupted in a ball of fire. He dusted off the piece of paper and collected the candlestick. “That’s what a cloud of gunpowder can do, and all it needs to set it off is a single smoldering ember. Please put away the stool and sweep the floor,” he instructed as he returned them to the bench.

Johann was so stunned by what he’d seen that he didn’t move. “Could I try that?” he begged.

Phillip sighed and held out the candlestick. “Put that back on the stool.”

Johann took the candlestick and Phillip set about placing a small amount of fine gunpowder on the sheet of paper. By the time he’d finished and put the gunpowder away Johann was back. He handed him the sheet of paper with the small measure of gunpowder on it. “The paper needs to be about a foot away from the candle and level with the top of the flame before you blow,” Phillip said as he handed it over.

Johann set himself up relative to the candle and blew. The resulting fireball wasn’t as impressive as Phillip’s but it still brought a gleam to Johann’s eyes.

“No, you can’t do that again,” Phillip said. He ignored Johann’s protests. “Put the candlestick and stool away and sweep the floor.”


Phillip knew that nothing he said would discourage Johann from playing around with gunpowder. He’d have to discover the realities of just how dangerous it was himself. So while Johann swept the laboratory, Phillip wrote down clear and concise instructions of how to make gunpowder. He handed it to Johann when he finished sweeping.

“What’s this?” Johann asked as he skimmed over the list of instructions.

That is the safe way to make gunpowder.” Phillip put a lot of emphasis on the word “safe”. “Not that making gunpowder can ever be considered safe.”

“You’re down on gunpowder because of your experiences in the war?” Johann asked as he carefully folded the sheet of paper and put it away.

Phillip nodded. He wasn’t willing to go into the details, but any enthusiasm he’d ever had for gunpowder had well and truly been lost during his time in the service of the counts of Nassau-Siegen. “I gave you those instructions because I know that the first chance you get, you’ll try and make some. And I’d rather you didn’t blow yourself or anybody else up whilst doing so.”

“I’ll be careful,” Johann promised.

“Good, now let’s get back to work. Those retorts won’t monitor themselves.”

A few days later

Phillip walked around the distillation furnace carefully checking the various retorts. He was paying special attention to the retorts at the cooler end of the furnace. Johann followed him like a shadow, and stood just about as close.

“Why are you redistilling the aqua vitae so often,” Johann asked.

Phillip turned and looked down his nose at Johann, his disappointment in his student evident on his face.

Johann looked around the laboratory. His eyes darted to the bench where retorts of aqua vitae were awaiting their turns on the furnace before returning to Phillip. “What did I do wrong this time?” he demanded.

Phillip sighed loudly, which caused Johann to blush. “What have I told you about the need for accuracy?” he asked.

Johann’s eyes darted back to the bench. “Oh,” he said as he turned back to face Phillip. “You mean I should have asked why you are distilling the aqua vitae four times?”

“That would have been much better,” Phillip said, “although you should really have asked why I am distilling it for the fourth time.” He smiled to show he wasn’t too upset. “We will actually be distilling it one more time, to give five-fold distilled waters of wine. Then I will pour it into clean containers, seal then, and bury them in baskets full of horse manure.”

“But you started with beer, not wine,” Johann pointed out.

Phillip elected to just glare at Johann before continuing as if he hadn’t spoken. “I distill it five times so as to make it as pure, and therefore as strong, as possible.”

“But you insist on accuracy, Dr. Gribbleflotz,” Johann protested.

Phillip settled his clenched fists on his hips and glared at Johann. “Johann, by the time it has been distilled five times, the distillate of beer is indistinguishable from the distillate of wine.” He continued to glare at Johann, daring him to say anything. When Johann broke eye contact Phillip continued speaking. “And besides, ‘waters of wine’ sounds much more impressive than beer, or aqua vitae.” Johann’s head shot up at the sudden levity. Their eyes met and he saw the smile in Phillip’s eyes as he continued to speak. “Now, you will no doubt be curious to know why it must be buried in horse manure for four months before being decanted into a clean flask and buried for another four months, and when that time is over, it needs to be decanted into yet another clean flask before being buried for a final four months, after which it will be decanted one last time?”

“Now that you mention it, Dr. Gribbleflotz, I would like to know why you have to do that.”

Phillip hadn’t been idle since his first attempt to explain to Dr. Michael Weitnauer back in Dalmatia why it had to be buried for a year. “Obviously the first consideration is protecting it from light while any sediment in the liquid settles. The removal of sediment is of course is why it is decanted at four monthly intervals, and we repeat the decanting to ensure all sediments are removed.”

“But why horse manure?” Johann asked.