1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 11
“Are you still trying to prove those bits of dust from the cupels are some new wonder element?”
Phillip jerked in surprise, but he managed not to drop anything. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I didn’t sneak up. I walked right up to you as nosily as I could. You were just so intent of saving every last fleck of worthless dirt that you didn’t notice.”
Phillip smiled at his supervisor. There was a difference of opinion as to what the remnants were that were sometimes found at the end of a fire assay after they dissolved the small buttons of gold with aqua regia. “It isn’t just dirt, and one day I’ll make you eat your words.”
Wilhelm snorted good-naturedly. “In the meantime, we need to get started on today’s assays.”
“I’m ready,” Phillip said eagerly. The remnants he was trying to test weren’t present after every assay, and even when they were, they never amounted to more than a few flecks. After a hundred and twenty-seven assays his total sample of nobilis auri weighed no more than three grains by the apothecaries’ system of weights. Every assay he did was an opportunity to add to his sample.
“You just want more of your bits of dirt,” Wilhelm said.
“They aren’t dirt,” Phillip insisted. “The more I have the easier it will be to test it. What I really need is a chance to do a fire assay on a sample of a hundred grains of gold, or better yet, a thousand grains.” He looked hopefully at Wilhelm. “I don’t suppose . . .”
“You haven’t got a hope,” Wilhelm said. “It’s one thing to let you keep the remnants of an assay. After all, it’s just worthless dust. But if you want to experiment with gold, you’re going to have to use your own.”
Phillip sighed. A hundred grains of gold cost about six gulden, and he just didn’t have that kind of money. It wasn’t that the gold would be lost, because it wouldn’t. There were ways of precipitating the gold out of the solution. It was just that he couldn’t afford the gold in the first place.
Phillip was late arriving to dinner, as usual. He grabbed his dinner and hurried to his seat beside two of his oldest friends at the assay office.
“What kept you this time?” Christoph Baer asked.
“Just collecting more nobilis auri from an assay,” Phillip explained as he sat down.
“You’re wasting your time, Phillip,” Frederik Bechler said. “Those flecks are just bits of dirt. If they were anything special someone would have found that out by now.”
Phillip begged to differ, and he said so. “If the flecks are just dirt, then surely something would dissolve them. I’ve tried my best Oil of Vitriol, aqua fortis, acidum salis, and fresh aqua regia, all without success.”
“What’s “nobilis auri“?” Dietrich asked.
Phillip and the others turned their attention to the fourth person at their table. “You haven’t started doing fire assays yet, have you?” Frederik asked.
Dietrich shook his head. “We’ve just started doing touchstone assaying.”
“Well, when you start doing fire assays, you’ll discover that after you dissolve the resulting little bead of gold with aqua regia you’re sometimes left with a few flecks of something in the beaker. Those flecks are Phillip’s nobilis auri.”
“Of course,” Christoph said, “anybody with any sense knows that they are just flecks of dirt, but Phillip thinks they’re something special.”
“Of course they’re something special,” Phillip protested. “Everyone knows that only precious metals remain after cupellation. That means nobilis auri must be a precious metal. And as even aqua regia can’t dissolve it, it must be more noble than gold.”
“Hence the name, nobilis auri,” Christoph said as an aside to Dietrich.
“It’s just a pretty name for dirt,” Frederick said.
“I’m right,” Phillip insisted. “And one day I’ll prove it.”
“Well that day isn’t today.” Christoph leaned closer to the others. “Is everything set up for the Twelfth Night party?”
“I’ve got the food lined up,” Dietrich said. He glanced Phillip’s way. “Have you been able to make enough you-know-what?”
“A dozen bottles,” Phillip confirmed.
“How’d you manage that?” Christoph asked. You haven’t been on the distilling furnace for months.”
“That happens when you’re about to be elevated to journeyman,” Frederik said.
Phillip struggled not to blush. Rumors had been circulating since July last year that they were going to elevate him to journeyman status early this year. It wasn’t unheard of for someone to achieve journeyman status as an assayist and metallurgist in just over six years, but it was rare. Most apprentices took closer to eight years. “I made it when I made the high purity saltpetre for the Schützenfest.”
“But that was back in July,” Christoph said. “Do you mean you’ve had a dozen bottles of you-know-what sitting around all this time?”
Phillip’s smile was smug. Keeping a dozen bottles of high proof alcohol hidden not just from the staff at the assay office, but also the apprentices for over six months had to rank as a major achievement.
Friday evening, January 11th, 1613
Ulrich Hechstetter, the head of the Augsburg assay office sipped from the glass of strong liquor and sighed. “Another good tipple.” He looked around the gathered staff. “I thought we found the still this time.”
“We found a still,” Wilhelm Neuffer confirmed. He sipped his drink and licked his lips. “But they must have had others.”
“But where?” Master Paul Paler asked. “We looked everywhere.”
Ulrich took another sip. “Well, we’ll just have to do better next year. Now, to the real reason for this meeting. Do I hear any objections to elevating Phillip Theophrastus Gribbleflotz to the rank of journeyman?”
“He’s a very gifted technician,” Jakob Reihing said. “And he makes a good teacher.”
“You’ve been letting an apprentice teach fellow apprentices?” Hieronymus Kiffhaber demanded.
Ulrich studied the assay office’s newest journeyman over the top of his glass. He hadn’t been trained in-house, so he probably hadn’t come across Gribbleflotz yet. “As Jakob said, Hieronymus, Phillip Gribbleflotz is a very gifted technician. We would be failing in our duty to the other apprentices not to afford them the best possible teachers. If that means letting an apprentice teach them certain techniques, under proper supervision naturally, then we are quite prepared to do that.”
“Hieronymus,” Paul called out. “Phillip Gribbleflotz taught me how he makes such good acids. I’m quite happy to teach you, but surely you’d rather learn from my teacher?”
“But you’re a master. What can an apprentice teach you?” Hieronymus asked, his voice shooting up several octaves.
“Quite a lot,” Paul said. “I’m now able to make acids almost as good as Phillip’s, which is considerably better than the best I used to make. With practice, I expect I could match his level of competence.”
Hieronymus looked bewildered. “But how is that possible?” he asked.
“Speaking for myself,” Wilhelm said, “I was never taught to be half as finicky and meticulous as Phillip is naturally.”
“Unfortunately,” Jakob said. “Although we can teach people what small changes to look for during a distillation, we can’t teach them how to monitor a whole furnace worth of distillations the way Phillip can. That’s a natural talent.”
Hieronymus slowly nodded his head. “But how long will Herr Gribbleflotz stay here if he is elevated to the rank of journeyman?”
“I’m sure he’ll stay on as a journeyman for a while,” Ulrich said.
“This is Gribbleflotz we’re talking about,” Jakob warned. “You know, the boy who wants to follow in his great grandfather’s footsteps.”
“Ahhh!” Ulrich had forgotten about Phillip’s claim to be the great grandson of the great Paracelsus. He took another sip of his drink, savoring the bite of the strong alcohol as it hit his tongue. “We could always delay his elevation to the rank of journeyman,” he suggested. He didn’t expect the idea to get any traction amongst the others, and it didn’t.
“We can’t do that,” Paul insisted. “Everyone is in hourly expectation of the announcement of his elevation.”
“It was just a suggestion,” Ulrich said. “If Hieronymus here wants to learn the subtleties of distilling acids, then we have to hold onto him for a while.”
“Phillip hasn’t finished copying Ercker’s treatise on ores and assaying,” Wilhelm said. “I think it’ll take him another couple of months to finish it.”
That made Ulrich happy. “There you are, Paul. Hieronymus will have until early spring to learn from the master how we make our high quality acids.” He glanced around the room. “So, there having been no objections, I will advise Phillip Theophrastus Gribbleflotz that he may consider himself to be a journeyman Assayist and Metallurgist. Are we all in agreement?”
“When do you plan to make the announcement?” Paul asked.