The Mists of Time: The Element With Two Names

tungsten light bulb filament
Tungsten touches our lives in more ways than we may realize.
(cc) Dorikowalski

Every time you turn on a light bulb or use any of thousands of everyday objects which were manufactured using hard metal tools, you’re using tungsten (chemical symbol W, atomic number 74) as it is known in Western countries, Wolfram as it is called in some European countries.

Why does tungsten have two names? And what do they mean?

“Tungsten” comes from two Swedish words — “Tung” meaning heavy and “sten” meaning stone. This refers to the heavy mineral (a natural stone compound of the element) discovered in 1755 by Swedish chemist and mineralogist, Axel Frederik Cronstedt.

The great Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele isolated tungstic acid, H2WO4, from Cronstedt’s sample in 1781. So, this mineral is called Sheelite. But Scheele and his colleague Torbern Bergman could not isolate the pure metal.

In 1779 chemist Peter Woulfe made more progress. Ah ha. Is that why tungsten is also called “wolfram?” No. The name wolfram is even older. It comes from German tin miners in the 1500’s. When attempting to purify tin ore, a strange mineral impurity, a froth in the solution, would “eat-up ” or combine with the tin “like a wolf…” So they called the unknown impurity “wolfram” or “wolf froth”. This mineral is now called wolframite.

Two spanish brothers, Fausto and Juan Jose d’Elhuyar y de Suvisa, eventually purified it in around 1779.

We now know that scheelite consists of calcium tungstate, CaWO4; and wolframite contains iron tungstate FeWO4, called ferberite; and manganese tungstate, MnWO4, called Hubnerite.

The fluoride in some toothpastes is a compound of the element Fluorine (chemical symbol F, atomic number 9.) Fluorine is the lightest of the group of elements called the Halogens.

Other halogens in this group had been known for a long time, and so chemists trying to isolate fluorine had a rough idea of its properties and how it would behave. But those brave explorers died in the laboratory. They had underestimated the tremendous reactivity and toxicity of pure fluorine gas. Do you know their names? Or have they been lost in the mists of time?