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11:59am on Sunday, 10th July, 2005:

Tungsten

Anecdote

Tungsten is a chemical element with atomic number 74. It is a very hard and heavy, steely-grey transition metal found in scheelite and several other ores, which has the highest melting point (3,422 C) , lowest vapour pressure and the highest tensile strength at temperatures above 1,650 C of all metals. It is notable for its robust physical properties, which were first used to effect in light bulb filaments. It is used in its pure state mainly for electrical applications, but is more highly prized in superalloy combination with nickel or iron, in which form it is used to construct high-performance aerospace-grade components such as turbine blades.

Tungsten (from the Swedish tung sten meaning "heavy stone") was first proposed in 1781 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who ascertained that a new acid could be made from tungstenite. Scheele and Torbern Bergman suggested that it could be possible to obtain a new metal by reducing tungstic acid. In 1783 Joséand Fausto Elhuyar found an acid in another ore that was identical to tungstic acid. In Spain later that year the brothers succeeded in isolating tungsten through reduction of this acid with charcoal. They are credited with the discovery of the element.

The chemical symbol for tungsten is W, which stands for "Wolfram". It is the only element the name of which was bought at public auction. The Elhuyar brothers, in need of finance to support their further research, announced that the right to name their new element would be sold to the highest bidder in June 1784. The winner was Peter Woulfe of Sweden, who in 1779 had examined an ore (which he had called "wolframite" — after his father, not himself) that he had suspected contained a new substance that he had been unable to isolate. Later application of a refinement of the Elhuyar technique demonstrated that wolframite did indeed contain tungsten.

OK.

When I was a kid, I had this idea for a book. It would be a kind of encyclopoedia, with every two-page spread covering a different subject in detail. The book would be hardback, and come with many different paper covers that could be placed on the front to give the impression that the whole book was an encyclopoedia on the subject covered by any two particular pages. The reason this would be necessary is that the facts it presented would be wrong. Not all of them, of course — not the ones that people could be expected to know anyway — just some of them. My intention was that such a book could be used to bamboozle non-scientists into believing stories based on force of narrative rather than actual scientific principle. Hey, if it's story they like...

I never did get around to writing any articles for the False Encyclopoedia, but if I had done they'd have looked like the one above concerning tungsten. Much of what it says is true, except for the "interesting" bit concerning the derivation of the name. In reality, Peter Woulfe examined wolframite and speculated that it might contain a new metal. He didn't buy the name, because it was never put up for auction. I made that up. See the Wikipedia definition for the true story.

I'd still like to see something like this, as a kind of sly, less obvious 1066 and All That. Maybe one day I'll create a web site to allow people to add their own plausible-sounding half-truth definitions, expanding it freely for the benefit of humanity.

Unfortunately, the name wakipedia is already taken.


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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).