History of Tungsten

Tungsten is a fascinating element that has played a significant role in human history for centuries. From ancient civilizations' use of wolframite in the middle ages to modern-day technological advancements, the history of tungsten is a fascinating journey through time. Tungsten’s unique properties and diverse applications have contributed to its historical development, making it an indispensable material in various industries.

The story of tungsten begins thousands of years ago. Although it was not known as tungsten back then, its presence was recognized by early civilizations. Ancient Egyptians used a mineral, now called wolframite, to create yellow pigment for pottery and glass.

The earliest known use of tungsten was in ancient China, where it was incorporated into porcelain glazes as early as the 8th century BCE. Chinese porcelain makers used a tungsten mineral known as wolframite to create unique blue and purple colors in their wares. This demonstrated an early mastery of tungsten compounds and their applications.

In medieval Europe, tungsten began to be used for industrial applications. Armories used tungsten in the process of making armor and weapons. The high hardness and durability of tungsten alloys made them ideal for shaping into swords, armor, and other implements of warfare. Tungsten's resistance to heat also made it useful for armor that needed to withstand the heat of fire.

Wolframite in the Middle Ages

Fast forward to the 16th century, a period famously known as the Middle Ages. In the heart of Germany, Saxony-Bohemian Erzgebirge, tin miners stumbled upon a peculiar mineral that often accompanied tin ore. However, this discovery was not celebrated, quite the contrary, as it was a nuisance miners.

During smelting, the presence of wolframite had a significant effect on the yield of tin. Foam would appear on the surface of the tin melt, with a heavy deposit forming in the smelting stove. This deposit retained the valuable tin, effectively reducing the amount of tin that could be extracted. A contemporary of the time described the process in symbolic language, writing that the mineral "tears away the tin and devours it like a wolf devours a sheep".

In response to this frustrating phenomenon, the tin miners began referring to this intrusive mineral by various German nicknames, such as "wolffram", "wolform", "wolfrumb", and "wolffshar", alluding to its black color, hairy appearance, and the way it interfered with the tin yield. Georgius Agricola was the first to document this new mineral, which he referred to as "Spuma Lupi" (wolf foam) in his book “De Natura Fossilium”, published in 1546.

It was this presumed inconvenience that set the stage for the discovery of one of the most important metals in modern history.

Back to the Guide: What is Tungsten

Discovery of Tungsten

The true beginnings of the discovery of tungsten dates back to the 18th century, when in 1781 Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele extracted tungstic acid from Scheelite. This breakthrough led him to propose the existence of a new metal that could potentially be obtained by reducing tungstic acid.

This work set the foundation for future advancements in the understanding and extraction of tungsten, and ultimately the official discovery of tungsten in 1783 by Spanish brothers Juan José and Fausto Elhuyar.

Their interest in mineralogy led them to the Seminary at Vergara, Spain, where they conducted their groundbreaking research. In 1783, independently of Scheele’s discovery, Juan and Fausto Elhuyar found an acid identical to tungstic acid in samples of the mineral wolframite ((Fe, Mn)WO4).

The brothers then successfully isolated tungsten by reduction of this acid with charcoal. As such, they were credited with the discovery of this new element, which they called “wolfram” or “volfram.” This marked the birth of a new element on the periodic table, paving the way for numerous technological advancements.

The History of Tungsten Oxide

Another significant figure in tungsten's history is Robert Oxland, an engineer who in 1841 produced the first procedures for preparing tungsten trioxide and sodium tungstate. In 1847 he was granted a patent for the preparation of sodium tungstate, formation of tungstic acid, and reduction of the metallic form using oil, tar, or charcoal. His work marked an important step in modern tungsten chemistry and paved the way for its industrialization.

Oxland's patent encompassed the production of sodium tungstate, tungstic acid, and metal tungsten. These substances played a crucial role in unfolding the vast potential of tungsten. Sodium tungstate was used in textile dyes, water treatment, and catalysts. Tungstic acid found use in fireproofing fabrics and cellulose, while metal tungsten became a critical component in various industries, including electronics, automotive, and aerospace.

Origin of Tungsten Name

The name 'tungsten' has an intriguing origin story. The origin of tungsten name comes from the Swedish words 'tung sten,' which translates to 'heavy stone.' This name was given due to the high density of a known tungsten-containing mineral. However, the element also had another name - 'wolfram.' This moniker came from the mineral wolframite, the source of tungsten's discovery. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) initially chose 'wolfram' as the official name for the element but later allowed the alternative name 'tungsten' under pressure from the USA press. Today, 'tungsten' is the widely accepted name for this versatile element.

Historical Developments of Tungsten

The journey through history is marked by numerous significant and historical developments of tungsten over the course of centuries. Tungsten-containing steels were patented, leading to the creation of the first self-hardening steels in 1868. The World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 showcased high-speed steels with tungsten additions up to 20%, revolutionizing engineering practice. By the 1920s, the production of tungsten carbide was underway, with the German electrical bulb company, Osram, seeking substitutes for costly diamond drawing dies used in manufacturing tungsten wire. Today, tungsten carbide is widely used in various applications, including metal cutting, machining of wood, plastics, composites, and soft ceramics.

In the early 19th century, tungsten began to make its mark in the scientific world. Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius determined the atomic weight of tungsten, establishing its place in the periodic table. However, it wasn't until the late 19th century that the true potential of tungsten was fully realized.

During this time, Thomas Edison was working on developing a practical and long-lasting electric light bulb. He experimented with various materials as filaments, but none proved durable enough to withstand the high temperatures required. In 1904, William D. Coolidge, an American engineer, revolutionized the light bulb industry by creating a tungsten filament that could endure the heat without burning out quickly. This breakthrough led to the mass production of incandescent light bulbs and brought tungsten into the spotlight.

These innovations allowed the development of incandescent light bulbs with tungsten filaments in the early 20th century. The extreme hardness and high melting point of tungsten made it ideal for light bulb filaments. Thomas Edison’s light bulbs used earlier filament materials like carbon, but tungsten filaments burned brighter and lasted longer.

Tungsten filaments began replacing carbon filaments in incandescent lightbulbs, taking advantage of tungsten's high melting point. This paved the way for tungsten's emergence as a crucial material for electrical and lighting applications. Tungsten's unique properties have solidified its importance through history and into the modern era.

The Role of Tungsten in WWII

The part played by tungsten in WWII was nothing short of vital for the Allied and Axis powers. Its unique properties made it ideal for military applications like armor-piercing ammunition, incendiary devices, and hardening steel.

Germany held a near monopoly on tungsten production in the 1930s, mining it from deposits in Austria and Portugal. This gave Germany an advantage early in the war, allowing them to produce more armored vehicles and munitions. However, once Germany invaded Austria and Portugal, the Allies initiated trade embargos and sought alternative sources of tungsten in Canada, South America, and Africa.

Tungsten-hardened steel was used extensively in armor plating for tanks and naval ships. The high density and hardness of tungsten carbide allowed it to withstand armor-piercing rounds better than plain steel. The British Royal Navy's battleships and aircraft carriers used tungsten-steel armor that was 50% harder than previous steel alloys.

Armor-piercing ammunition utilized tungsten's density and hardness as well. Tungsten core rounds could penetrate thicker steel plate armor. Germany produced tungsten-core bullets for anti-tank rifles and aircraft-mounted cannon. The US followed suit with .50-caliber tungsten ammunition capable of piercing the armor on German tanks.

Tungsten filaments were key to incendiary bombs and devices. When heated by an electric current, tungsten filaments glow white-hot, easily igniting flammable materials. The US used small tungsten filaments in M50 and M47 incendiary bombs to ignite Japanese cities, which were largely constructed of wood and paper buildings.

One of the largest consumers of tungsten during WWII was metal-cutting tools. Tungsten carbide dies and cutting inserts allowed for faster, more efficient machining of steel components used in all manner of military equipment and vehicles. Carbide tooling helped ramp up production of tanks, artillery, ships, aircraft, and firearms.

By 1943, the US had drastically increased its domestic tungsten production to meet wartime demands. Both the Allied and Axis powers recognized tungsten's strategic importance, exemplifying how control of specific raw materials was crucial to the war effort on all fronts.

Historical Uses of Tungsten

Tungsten has a long history of use in various applications across different cultures and time periods. Some of the earliest uses of this versatile metal can be traced back thousands of years to ancient civilizations that incorporated tungsten into tools, weapons, jewelry and other artifacts

One of the earliest historical uses of tungsten can be traced back to ancient China. The Chinese were aware of a mineral called "scheelite," which contained tungsten. They used this mineral to create a yellow pigment for pottery and ceramics. The Chinese would grind the scheelite into a fine powder and mix it with clay to produce a vibrant yellow glaze. This use of tungsten in ceramics dates back over two thousand years, showcasing the long-standing recognition of its distinct properties.

Ancient Civilizations

Long before its metallurgical applications, tungsten was prized in ancient China for making beautiful jewelry and ornaments. Archeological evidence indicates the Chinese were adept at extracting tungsten from its ores as early as 400 BCE. Tungsten artifacts including mirrors, bowls, blades and jewelry have been found dating back to the Shang Dynasty. In Egypt, small amounts of tungsten were incorporated into bronze and other alloys to strengthen tools and weapons. The famous Damascus steel blades forged in the Middle East during medieval times likely contained trace amounts of tungsten.

Cultural Significance

In Asia, tungsten has held deep cultural meaning for centuries. Chinese texts from the Song Dynasty praised tungsten as a "magic" metal. Across Japan and Korea, tungsten was seen as a symbol of strength and came to be associated with samurai swords. Many modern Asian cultures still revere tungsten, using it in amulets, charms and other objects believed to confer resilience and vitality. Meanwhile in Europe, tungsten played a role in the political turmoil and upheaval of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with control over tungsten resources factoring into the onset of both world wars.

In recent times, tungsten has become a critical component in the manufacturing of various electronic devices. Its excellent electrical conductivity makes it suitable for creating contacts and electrodes in electronic components like transistors and integrated circuits. Tungsten's resistance to heat and wear also makes it a preferred material for heating elements and electrical contacts in high-temperature applications.

Use in Traditional Industries

Tungsten's unique properties of hardness, density and high melting point have made it invaluable for industrial applications throughout history. In the 19th century, tungsten saw widespread use in the steel industry for strengthening and hardening steel. The emergence of tungsten steel revolutionized the manufacturing of cutting tools, mining drills, dies and other durable equipment. Tungsten carbide and other alloys were also pivotal for armor-piercing ammunition. In construction, tungsten carbide bits and other components enabled more efficient drilling and machining of hard materials like concrete and granite.

From its early use as a ceramic glaze pigment in ancient China to its modern-day utilization in electronic devices, tungsten's unique properties have made it indispensable across various industries. Its high melting point, remarkable strength, and excellent electrical conductivity have contributed to advancements in lighting technology, armaments, aerospace, and electronics. As we continue to explore new frontiers in science and technology, tungsten will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping our future.


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