Johann Friedrich Böttger was born in 1682, son of a mint-worker and grandson of a goldsmith, and became an apothecary's apprentice in Prussia who decided to try his hand at alchemy. He did a lot of experiments and gained a reputation for the sought-after ability to turn lead into gold, a reputation helped by his sleight of hand substitutions of one metal for another. Augustus II, ruler of Saxony and Poland at the time, was perpectually in debt from high living and the Great Northern War; in 1701 he had Böttger arrested and imprisoned him in a laboratory and told him to make gold. (At this point Böttger claimed he had never actually been able to make gold, but Augustus didn't let him off the hook. Böttger would try to escape a few times after failing to meet Augustus' deadlines.)

Böttger was originally supervised by Ehrenfried Waller von Tschirnhaus, a scientist who had been working for Augustus, trying to duplicate the porcelain which was extremely valuable in Europe because it had to be imported from China. Tschirnhaus died in 1708, but he had taught Böttger everything he knew about pottery, and Böttger first turned out a red pottery which, while it didn't really duplicate Chinese porcelain, was still a salable commodity. The problem turned out to be the clay that was being used in the European product.

Around 1709, a white powder clay was substituted for flour to powder some wigs to their preferred whiteness. Böttger is supposed to have noticed the unusual heaviness of his wig and examined a package of the powder that had been used on it. He discovered that he could work the powder like other clays; it turned out to be the kaolin that the Chinese used in their porcelain. This, and his new design for a kiln, enabled him to produce a product indistinguishable from the imported items, which made Augustus extremely happy.

The first European porcelain factory was was opened the next year; this Meissen factory near Dresden on the Elbe River maintained a monopoly on making this "hard-paste" porcelain for a few years by keeping its processes secret. Böttger was factory manager, which was difficult since he was not allowed to leave the castle where he was imprisoned except for brief visits. It took a commission from the king to straighten out the mess the factory fell into in its first few years, but by 1714 things were going more smoothly.

Böttger was made a baron in 1711 and a few years later in 1714 was finally given his freedom; he had been Augustus' prisoner all this time. Unfortunately, he had developed an alcohol problem while a prisoner, and the chemicals he worked with had ruined his health. At least, he was able to bring his mother and sister to live with him. He continued to experiment with glazes and pigments for porcelain, as well as still trying to make gold. But he started to experience seizures, as well as deep paranoia; he was never truly healthy again, and died in 1719.

Gleeson, Janet. The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

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