Phosphorus is the first element to be discovered having an historical register. In 1669, a German merchant called Henning Brand obtained elementary phosphorus through the distillation of urine, writing a letter to Leibniz reporting its discovery. It is quite probable that, in the 12th century, Arabian alchemists have obtained the element using this process. However, the credit is given to Brand. The name of phosphorus has a Greek origin meaning "it possesses brilliance" due to its property of shining in the darkness when exposed to the air.

Further investigations by Brand's contemporary researchers revealed that the addition of sand or coal to urine helped the freeing of phosphorus. About one century after its original work, Brand discovered that phosphorus is an important constituent of the bones, introducing a new method of industrial production of phosphorus. The reaction of the bones with nitric or sulfuric acid produces phosphoric acid that, when heated up with coal, produces elementary phosphorus. This was the first method of phosphorus commercial production.

At the end of the 19th century, James Readman developed the first process for the production of the element with an electrical furnace. In spite of many design and operation improvements of electrical furnaces, the basics of Readman's method to obtain elementary phosphorus remains in present technology.