The commercial potential for the stuff—which soon became known as phosphorus, from Greek and Latin roots meaning "light bearing"—was not lost on eager businesspeople, but the difficulties of manufacture made it too costly to exploit. An ounce of phosphorus retailed for six guineas—perhaps five hundred dollars in today's money—or more than gold.
At first, soldiers were called on to provide the raw material, but such an arrangement was hardly conducive to industrial-scale production. In the 1750s a Swedish chemist named Karl (or Carl) Scheele devised a way to manufacture phosphorus in bulk without the slop or smell of urine. It was largely because of this mastery of phosphorus that Sweden became, and remains, a leading producer of matches.
Scheele was both an extraordinary and extraordinarily luckless fellow. A poor pharmacist with little in the way of advanced apparatus, he discovered eight elements—chlorine, fluorine, manganese, barium, molybdenum, tungsten, nitrogen, and oxygen—and got credit for none of them. In every case, his finds were either overlooked or made it into publication after someone else had made the same discovery independently. He also discovered many useful compounds, among them ammonia, glycerin, and tannic acid, and was the first to see the commercial potential of chlorine as a bleach—all breakthroughs that made other people extremely wealthy.