1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 06
“I need to talk to you, Phillip,”
Phillip recognized his supervisor’s voice. He also recognized from the tone that he should stop what he was doing immediately. Reluctantly he raked away the coals heating the vessel and turned to face Jakob. The man beside him came as a shock. “Master Paler.”
“Phillip, Jakob here says that you are just the person to run some tests for me.”
Phillip didn’t know how to reply, so he turned to his supervisor in mute appeal.
“Master Paler wants you to check the various barrels of gunpowder used by the shooting team for consistency.”
That sounded interesting, but there was one major difficulty. “I don’t know how to do that, Herr Reihing.”
“That’s all right. I’ll show you what has to be done, and then leave you to get on with it.”
Although he was proud that Herr Reihing thought he could perform this new task, he knew it wouldn’t make him any friends with the other apprentices. He could already feel their eyes boring into his back. “When do I start?”
“Report to me as soon as you’ve finished your current distillations,” Jakob said.
That evening the other apprentices crowed around Phillip when he returned to the dormitory.
“What were you doing with Herr Reihing today?” Heinrich asked.
“He wanted me to help him test some gunpowder for consistency.”
“And why would Herr Reihing want you to help him do that, instead of someone with more training?”
“Such as yourself, Heinrich?” Christoph suggested.
“Yes, me. After all, I’ve only got another year to go in my apprenticeship.” Heinrich turned his attention back to Phillip. “So, why did he drag you away from the production of acids, Gribbleflotz?”
“You’re only complaining because they moved you to the furnace while Phillip was away,” Christoph said.
Heinrich sent Christoph a quelling glare before turning back to Phillip.
Phillip shrugged. He had no idea why he’d been singled out. But that wasn’t going to appease his current audience. However, Herr Reihing had told him why the powder was being tested. “He said Herr Kellner thought the quality of the power the shooting team was using wasn’t consistent between the barrels.”
“So you had to check to the quality of the powder,” Christoph said. “Go on; tell us how you did that.”
Christoph’s plea was seconded by the rest of the apprentices; even Heinrich indicated he was interested.
“Well, firstly we did a simple visual test,” Phillip explained. “Herr Reihing said that over time gunpowder could separate into its component parts. So we looked for signs of that. Then we did a flash test.”
“What’s that?” Heinrich asked.
“You fill a small copper thimble with gunpowder and invert it onto a piece of clean parchment. Then you use a red-hot iron probe to ignite it. You can determine the quality of the powder by the marks it leaves on the parchment.”
“I bet you can’t do that,” Heinrich muttered.
“Leave off, Heinrich,” Frederik said. “Even if you aren’t interested, I am.” He turned to Phillip. “Why do you use a copper thimble?”
“It doesn’t have to be a copper thimble. That’s just what Herr Reihing used. Any small container will do. The idea is to use exactly the same amount of gunpowder every time so you can compare the results,” Philip explained.
“And I suppose you invert the thimble over the parchment rather than just pour it out so the shape of the mound of gunpowder is the same in each experiment?” Frederik asked.
Phillip nodded. He wasn’t surprised at the sudden drop off in hostility. Gunpowder was something dear to all their hearts. Most, if not all of them, had tried to make some with varying degrees of success at some stage, and Phillip was no exception. There was something about gunpowder that appealed to teenage boys.
“And that’s what you’ve been doing all afternoon, igniting gunpowder?” Christoph asked.
“No, but the other tests aren’t so much fun.” Phillip wasn’t being entirely honest, because he’d actually enjoyed doing the other tests, but he knew his audience would consider them boring.
“Let us decide if it’s fun or not,” Heinrich said.
“Well, what I had to do was take a sample from each barrel of gunpowder, wash them in warm water, and then I had to filter each solution and weigh the residues. The difference between the weight of the initial samples and the residue is the amount of saltpetre in the original sample.
“I’ve had to do something like that before,” Heinrich muttered, “and it’s so finicky to do that you’re welcome to it.”
Jakob passed on Phillip’s results to Paul Paler, who in turn passed them on to Ulrich Hechstetter.
“Here are the results from the gunpowder tests,” Paul said as he handed over Phillip’s report. “The gunpowder in the store can be divided into two groups with different levels of saltpetre. I’ve marked the barrels as being either batch one or batch two.”
“So that’s the end of it. Thanks, Paul. I’ll pass the news onto Bartholomäus Kellner.”
“There is something else,” Paul said hesitantly.
“It’s just a suggestion,” Paul muttered.
“Yes?” Ulrich prompted.
“Jakob seems to think that there were a lot of impurities in the gunpowder, and that we could make better gunpowder than we’re getting from Master Böcklin by using purer ingredients,” Paul said.
Ulrich shook his head. “Master Böcklin would never stand for us making gunpowder.”
“That’s what I told Jakob,” Paul said. “But he pointed out that Phillip Gribbleflotz has a proven ability to make really pure acids, and that it wouldn’t hurt to let him try and do the same with saltpetre and sulphur. If he can deliver purer saltpetre and sulphur, then you could ask Master Böcklin to use it to make a special batch of gunpowder for the shooting team.”
Ulrich had heard about the high quality of the distillates young Gribbleflotz was making, and the idea that he might be able to work his special magic over the ingredients for gunpowder had a certain appeal. “That could give us the edge we need to beat the Goldsmith’s this year. I’ll have a word with Georg and see if he’s amenable.”
A couple of days later Ulrich dropped in on Paul with the news. “Master Böcklin is happy to make a special order for us, especially if we provide him with the raw materials. So I want you to get Gribbleflotz started refining the saltpetre and sulphur as soon as possible.”
Paul passed on the instruction to Jakob Reihing, who took charge of teaching Phillip how to refine saltpetre and sulphur. The first step was to provide him with a copy of Lazurus Ercker’s 1580 Treatise on Ores and Assaying to read. It was in Latin, and Phillip spent the next week fighting his way through the long section on saltpetre. In addition to learning the theory of making saltpetre, it did wonders for his Latin skills.
With the theory in place Jakob took Phillip through the various stages of preparing saltpetre, from the collection of the earths, through the treatment with lye and washing in warm water, and ending with the boiling away of the resulting filtered saltpetre solution to give the desired white powder. In comparison, the production of very pure sulphur was easy.
Once he was sufficiently sure that Phillip knew what he was supposed to be doing, Jakob left him to it. As he poured his first samples of wash water through the cloth filter into the evaporating pan Phillip couldn’t help but think about the opportunity to make more triple distilled aqua vitae that was going to waste. The high proof alcohol was a valuable trade commodity amongst the apprentices, but Herr Reihing was paying too much attention to his progress for him to risk running any retorts on the furnace.
July 1609, the day of the Schützenfest
Phillip shaded his eyes as he tried to look through the window of the local book store. There were a couple of interesting looking titles on display. Unfortunately, there was no way he could afford them as a mere apprentice.
“Stop drooling, Phillip,” Christoph Baer said.
“Yes,” Frederik Bechler said in agreement. “The Fuggers are good employers, but even they don’t give their apprentices enough to buy books.”
Phillip gave the practical alchemy books a last regretful look before pushing himself away for the window. “I can dream,” he said.
“Sure. How much money do you have?” Frederik asked.
“Nearly two gulden.”