The Mists of Time: Swirls in Time

Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro
Do you know the connection between platinum and the Spanish Conquistadores?
(cc) Wikimedia Commons

What’s in a name? We’ve all heard that question, but names are sometimes important. When describing an object, perhaps familiar in everyday life, the name often gives a clue to the circumstances surrounding the origin of the object. As language — in this case the names which describe objects — changes, our perception of the object also changes.

Nylon windbreakers, today called “bomber jackets,” bare little resemblance to the high-altitude leathers (leather jackets) worn by B-17 and Lancaster bomber crews in WWII to keep them warm at high altitudes.

A “hacker” today refers to someone who gains unauthorized use of remote computer equipment, but it did not always mean that.

So too in science, names and their origins can change and their origins may be forgotten.

The names of some chemical elements predate exact records. They come from antiquity. The names of others describe the location or form in which they were originally found.

Platinum, the precious metal (chemical symbol Pt, atomic number 78), although used for over 2000 years in Egypt and South America, was not discovered by Europeans until the 1500’s, after they had reached South America.

They called the new metal “platino del pinto,” referring to “the little silver of the pinto river.” In 1557 the Italian-French chemist Julius Caesar Scaliger, analyzed the Spanish samples and found that they were not silver, but a new metal.

Then, nothing happened. The discovery was essentially forgotten for nearly 200 years.

It was re-discovered, again in South America, and again by the Spanish, a Spanish scientist Antonio de Ulloa in 1735. And then in 1783, French chemist Francios Chabaneau, discovered how to purify it. So the Spanish, you might say, came full circle in discovering and naming platinum.

For the rest of the story of platinum see “The Elements — Platinum” by Ian Wood.