An Example of Successful Alchemy

Successful Alchemy

GUEST POST from John Bessant

At the age of eighteen Johann Friedrich Bottger was blessed with a strong pair of legs. Which came in handy for his chosen profession — that of alchemy. Earning a living by attracting sponsors to support you in your quest to transmute base metals into gold was not without its risks. Chief amongst which was the anger of disappointed patrons who might run you out of town, or worse, hunt you down, fling you in jail and throw away the key.

Which is why, in 1704, young Johann was running as fast as his legs could carry him, heading south east along the banks of the river Elbe, away from some very angry Berlin sponsors and towards the city of Dresden. Hoping to find at least some peace and quiet and possibly a new patron.

His wish was granted but not quite on the terms he’d have hoped for. He was taken into ‘protective custody’ by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, King of Poland and — as the name suggests — not someone to trifle with. He was confined to a laboratory under instructions to produce gold in order to help pay for Augustus’s expensive lifestyle; something of a challenge since, like many of his contemporary alchemists, Johann wasn’t making much progress in that direction.

Augustus the StrongThe world of innovation is full of the names of famous partnerships — Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Sergey Brin and Larry Page to name but a few. But Bottger and von Tschirnhaus isn’t a combination which springs easily to the lips or off the tongue. Yet it was this unlikely partnership which managed the impossible — between them they were able to transmute base material into weisses Gold — white gold.

Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus was a much older man, a chemist in the town of Meissen who had worked all his life to try and improve glass making. But as a sideline he was interested in ceramics and in particular with trying to work out how to make porcelain. He heard of Johann’s plight and saw an opportunity; he persuaded Augustus to assign Johann to work with him in the quest and in 1705 Bottger, still under guard, was moved to Meissen to work with Tschirnhaus.

Why would he do that? Mainly because he understood that Augustus had an obsession with porcelain. So much so that in order to add to his collection he “presented” 600 cavalrymen from his army to the Prussian king, Frederick William I in spring 1717; in exchange he received 151 Chinese porcelain vessels. This wasn’t a foolish obsession; at that time porcelain was prized highly amongst the aristocracy. Pale, thin, translucent, its delicate texture worked into wonderful and complex shapes. But above all it was rare. The only supplies came from China via the Silk Road and merchants were able to charge extraordinary prices for this strange exotic oriental material. They embellished the legends surrounding the stuff — that it all came from one mysterious location, Jingdezhen, in the centre of China and specifically from a hill which housed the mine from which porcelain emerged as if by magic.

Chinese PorcelainTruth was the merchants didn’t know much about it and neither did the Chinese who supplied them. Marco Polo’s best guess at its origins? ‘The dishes are made of a crumbly earth or clay which is dug as though from a mine and stacked in huge mounds and then left for thirty or forty years exposed to wind, rain, and sun …by this time the earth is so refined that dishes made of it are of an azure tint with a very brilliant sheen.” The assumption that this was somehow magical can be seen in an account from 1550 suggested that “porcelain is …… made of a certain juice which coalesces underground…”

Its origins didn’t matter; its rarity meant it was immensely valuable. So if anyone could find a way to make porcelain they would also make their fortune. An interesting business proposition which convinced Augustus to allow Bottger, under von Tschirnhaus’s supervision, to start work. Theirs was not an overnight success and their work was interrupted for a year when the Swedes occupied Saxony in 1706 and Bottger was moved to a distant fortress for safe keeping. And their progress wasn’t a matter of luck or sudden flashes of inspiration. It was about turning fragments of knowledge wrapped up in superstition and half-truths into something reproduceable, codifiable and manageable. It was a kind of transmutation — but of ideas, not metals.

They kept at the project, bringing a discipline to their experiments and painstakingly recording the successes (few) and the failures (many) on the way to synthesising this material. Tschirnhaus died on October 11th 1708 from dysentery but he had the opportunity to see his life’s work come to fruition; that year they found a reliable and practical formula and developed a manufacturing process to convert handfuls of earth into white gold.

By 1709 Bottger’s laboratories in the Albrechtsburg fortress in Meissen began producing batches of porcelain and the first pieces went on sale at the Leipzig Easter Fair in 1710. Augustus finished building a royal porcelain factory in Meissen in June the same year and the operation was transferred there. The first products were red (there are examples still around, now known as Bottger stoneware) but soon Bottger’s continued experimentation enabled him (in 1713) to make a pale white version and then to use different coloured glazes to enable the creation of beautiful and functional china wares.

Which is where another important piece of the puzzle comes in; rather than develop production on a large scale to make porcelain a commodity product Bottger (with Augustus’s backing and the profits from early sales) began to add design into the mix. He commissioned artists to create a range of exquisite artefacts exploiting the potential of the new material and opening up a wealthy market niche to continue to fund his development work. Meissen porcelain figures were used to decorate the drawing rooms of great houses, sculptures took pride of place in entrance halls and even the more mundane business of eating and drinking became a pleasure when using beautifully crafted plates, cups, pots and jugs. What Bottger did was essentially create what we would call ‘experience innovation’ today.

Porcelain Figures

European porcelain had arrived — and just in time to catch another wave of change which fuelled its popularity and kept it a very profitable industry. In the early 18th century the growing middle classes discovered the attraction of exotic drinks — tea, coffee and chocolate and their popularity swept across the continent. It wasn’t just the drinks themselves, it was the social experience which surrounded them. But it also drove a practical revolution in both drawing rooms and later coffee shops. A premium priced drink needs a suitable vessel from which to drink it — not just a simple cup. And the trouble with using gold or silver or expensive metal cups is very practical — they get hot and burn your lips. That’s where fine china, exemplified by the thin translucent porcelain — comes into its own. The perfect material from which to construct cups, pots, milk jugs and all the other accoutrements of the tea or coffee service.

Pretty soon everyone wanted one. Just like today when the advanced and expensive features in a vehicle begin with the luxury product targeted at the wealthy customer and then trickle down down to the mainstream mass market, so porcelain moved from a luxury item to one consumed on a far bigger scale. Helped along by the growing industrialisation of its manufacture and the strong scientific underpinning to those factories.

Porcelain Dishes

Open innovation isn’t a new phenomenon — innovation has always been about knowledge flows. Taking ideas from one source and adapting and redeploying them is a key feature of the way the game plays out. Bottger and Tschirnhaus themselves borrowed plenty of ideas from their Chinese counterparts; their knowledge base around porcelain was partly constructed of whatever they could find out about how the Chinese did it. ‘Reverse engineering’ existing successful products to learn is still a valuable approach today. Much of the success of South Korean companies like LG and Samsung can be traced back to the middle of the 20th century where they built on the principles of a strategy they called ‘copy and develop’. Importantly for them — as for our two German chemists — it’s not enough to imitate. The secret to long-term success is to use what knowledge you might acquire from someone else as a way of beginning a journey towards the frontier.

But whilst it is good to draw on knowledge from other people open innovation raises the risk that your own hard-won knowledge leaks out. Despite taking precautions to protect their intellectual property the potential value of porcelain in the market place spawned many attempts to steal the ideas. It helped that the company’s R&D facility was located inside a castle — the Albrechstburg — with high physical walls to prevent things leaking out, but even these walls could be breached.

In today’s terms we’d talk perhaps of a rather weak ‘appropriability regime’ — it was hard to keep the lid on what was going on. Samuel Stöltzel was a senior arcanist at Meissen, one of the few who understood the secrets (the ‘arcana’) of making the hard porcelain for which the company had become famous. But (for a suitably high price) he was persuaded to sell these to a competing venture which, in 1717, started to produce porcelain in Vienna. By 1760 there were over thirty porcelain factories in Europe.

Knowledge movement of this kind isn’t always a bad thing at the level of an industry because it multiplies the amount of knowledge exploration. Others took the increasingly available ideas and added and improved on them. Not least a young chemist working in the British town of Plymouth, a thoughtful Quaker named William Cookworthy. One of the core secrets in porcelain was the use of kaolin (also known as china clay) in the mix. He broke down the production ratio and also demonstrated that the clay pits in Cornwall were rich in this material, helping establish the UK as a major player in the growing ceramics industry. It wasn’t long before big names like Wedgwood and Spode began producing their own versions of porcelain artefacts and exporting them around the world.

Crossed SwordsFaced with the challenge of increasing imitation Augustus’s team set about differentiating themselves in other ways. They built a brand, building on the relationships they had already made and the values they and their product stood for — purity, exquisite design, high quality at a premium price. To make sure they got the message across they employed a trade mark — the crossed swords of the Meissen brand which can still be found on their ware today, three hundred years on.

Innovation lessons

What does this story tell us about innovation? Perhaps the most significant lesson is that success isn’t a matter of luck. There wasn’t a single ‘Eureka!’ moment but rather a long systematic search. Unlike the mystic dream of turning base metal into gold this industry was founded on the growing scientific premise that it would be possible to make porcelain and do so under controlled conditions, learning to repeat the trick and codifying the knowledge to do so. In many ways Bottger and Tschirnhaus’s’s work laid the foundations for the systematic industrial research and development which grew to underpin the great chemical industries of Europe — in dyestuffs, fertilisers, soap, pharmaceuticals and explosives.

Patient money helps and having a wealthy benefactor isn’t a bad start for any entrepreneurial venture. But the growth of Meissen porcelain wasn’t simply a case of pouring in money. The continuous investment of time and resources wasn’t blind faith; it was based on a recognition of the potential market opportunity. There was a demand pull for the luxury item which porcelain represented, but in order to feed this the company needed to grow their niche. And a key part of that was design — not simply providing functional domestic ware but creating works of art which reinforced the perception of something precious to be desired and treasured.

Building a business out of an idea and moving to scale needs a system — inside there are many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to be put in place. As well as commissioning designers to imagine the products the Meissen team also had to continue their hard work on process technology to be able to manufacture them. All the different stages like moulding, shaping, painting, glazing, firing needed to move from manual operations to controlled and systematic processes. Beyond that there were challenges in scaling around procuring raw materials of the right quality, and downstream development of sales and distribution networks.

Was it worth it? For Bottger it was a way of surviving although he spent most of his time under house arrest. Augustus finally granted him his freedom in 1714 and he was able to spend the final years of his life enjoying the sense of achievement that came from having (at least partially) fulfilled the alchemist’s dream of transmuting base material into gold. He helped create an industry which continues to produce beautiful artefacts for widespread use around the world. And one which has grown in value; the ceramic tableware market size is expected to reach USD 3.09 billion by 2022.

Not bad for an athletic runaway from Berlin.

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Image credits: Pexels, Wikipedia

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About John Bessant

Originally a chemical engineer, John Bessant has been active in the field of research and consultancy in technology and innovation management for over 40 years. He is Emeritus Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter and also has visiting appointments at the universities of Stavanger, Norway and Erlangen-Nuremburg, Germany. Author of over 30 books and 200 articles, you can find out more here: www.johnbessant.org
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