Puffer

A Puffer is a nickname for an alchemist who is preoccupied with transmuting base metals into GOLD and SILVER and who ignores the spiritual or philosophical side of Alchemy. Puffers earned their nickname from their penchant for the use of bellows and forges. They were scorned by “true” alchemists; however, their experiments sometimes led to discoveries in chemistry.

Puffers labored away in dirty laboratories, often killing themselves from careless handling of chemicals or from inhaling poisonous fumes. They hired themselves out to wealthy patrons who wanted easy riches, but their failure to produce precious metals landed them in prison or even on the execution block.

One puffer of note was Johann F. Bottiger, a German “pharmaceutical assistant” who in 1701, at age 16, reportedly transformed several 20-pfennig pieces of silver into gold in front of aristocratic witnesses in Berlin. The PROJECTION was aided by Bottiger’s employer, who applied a dark red glass TINCTURE to the silver pieces.

Bottiger was vaulted to fame and caught the attention of Frederich I of Prussia, a gold-hungry ruler who executed alchemists who failed to make gold. Bottiger fled to avoid being forced to work for Frederich but fell into the employ of another greedy monarch, Augustus the Strong of Saxony, who hanged failed alchemists from a gallows decked out in tinsel to mock their failure. Augustus gave Bottiger everything he could want in the way of equipment—but made him a prisoner of the state.

Bottiger managed to spend 18 years working for Augustus, convincing the king that he could indeed make gold and silver. What saved his life was his ability to imitate porcelain imported from China. In 1706 August ordered him to discover how porcelain was made, and it took Bottiger three years to do so. His success enabled August to establish a porcelain factory in Meissen in 1710. Bottiger oversaw the factory and carefully guarded his secret for making porcelain.

But Augustus still demanded gold and silver, and in 1713 he insisted that Bottiger Demonstrate his ability or face execution. On March 13, Bottiger took copper and lead and made small buttons of gold and silver, according to witnesses. Bottiger’s life was saved. In December 1717, again under pressure by the king, Bottiger swore that he would reveal his secret formula for making precious metals. But before he did so, he apparently inhaled poisonous fumes in his laboratory and died. Whether the death was accidental or suicide is not known.

Further Reading:

  • Secrets of the Alchemists. New York: Time-Life Books, 1990.

The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.

Alchemy Glossary - Puffer