Cobalt Was So Murderous That it Was Named After Evil Spirits

Illustration for article titled Cobalt Was So Murderous That it Was Named After Evil Spirits

Cobalt is named for the German word “kobold,” or goblin. The association wasn’t innocent. It got the name because cobalt was responsible for the horrible and mysterious deaths of miners.


People have been intentionally using cobalt for six hundred years. The element is a dirty silver color on its own, but when combined with other elements turns a deep and gorgeous blue. Pot-makers, painters, and glass-makers all went crazy for the pigment, but it wasn’t until chemistry came into its own that anyone realized it was its own element.

Illustration for article titled Cobalt Was So Murderous That it Was Named After Evil Spirits

By that time it had gotten a very bad reputation. Cobalt is relatively rare element, but it can be found in veins underground. Even if it isn’t intentionally mined for itself, it forms combinations with copper and other sought-after materials that are mined. Miners in cobalt-rich areas came to fear something in the mines. They didn’t know exactly what it was. They just knew that, when heated, it filled the mine with a vapor that could kill them. Even those who did escape were sick for weeks, and sometimes had their health permanently ruined.

One of the elements that cobalt combines with is arsenic. A cobalt atom with two arsenic atoms attached is called cobaltite, and a cobalt atom with three arsenic atoms attached is called skutterudite. Neither is a rare combination. So when miners tried to extract a piece of ore by heating it, they’d release arsenic as a gas all around them. They noticed that this was especially common when they were hacking into a substance that looked like copper, but had turned blue, and called the substance “kobold,” or goblin.

In 1735, when Georg Brandt chemically took apart one of those beautifully blue pieces of copper, he found that he had discovered a new metal. This new element was confirmed in 1780 by Torbern Bergman. Since no one felt comfortable just calling an element “evil goblin” the name was modified to cobalt. Still the goblins have made their way into the periodic table.

Top Image: Kevin Dooley, Second Image: Juri



Although it is incidental to the story of cobalt, arsenic mining was a true horror in the 19th Century.

Arsenic was widely used as an insecticide, to remove the green-brown colour of raw glass as well as for making dyes and pigments (especially the colour known as Scheele’s Green which was oh-so-fashionable, but oh-so-deadly since it reacted with sulfur fumes from coal fires and gas lights to produce arsine gas).

Arsenic is found in many metal-bearing ore bodies around low-temperature minerals, especially in Cornwall and Devon. By the mid to late 19th Century their traditional copper mining was in decline because of larger deposits coming on stream from the US and the British Colonies, so the mines turned to arsenic recovery. The arsenic sulfide was crushed and mixed with coal, often by children and women. It was put into a calciner and burned, the arsenic vaporised and was blown into system of flues called labyrinths where the arsenic would condense. Every now and then, children (again) with no more protection than noses plugged with cotton wool and a handkerchief over their eyes, would go into the labyrinth and chip the pure arsenic from the walls so that it could be milled into powder.

In the 1870s, mines in Cornwall and Devon were producing more than half of the World’s arsenic, one mine alone purified 3000 tonnes of pure arsenic every year. But that was only a fraction of what went into the labyrinth - a lot of arsenic didn’t condense before it was blown out of the smokestack and deposited on the surrounding countryside. So if you visit the sites of the old arsenic calciners, you can always tell which way the wind blows, because downwind there are no trees.

One of the arsenic refineries has been detoxified and is now open to the public at Botallack in the far West of Cornwall. Well worth a visit - especially, if like thousands of people, you are now heading that way in search of Poldark. Lots of other mining heritage there as well as stone circles, far too many myths and legends and truly magnificent pasties...

which reminds me...

... a Cornish pasty (accept no substitutes) has a heavy crimp of pastry on one side. This acts as a good handle to hold it whilst eating. A miner would have been filthy with arsenic-rich dust, so after the pasty was finished, the crimp was traditionally thrown away as it would have been dirty and possibly toxic...

...and it was thrown away as a gift to the spirits that lived in the mines. Keep them happy and you’d find precious metals. Upset them and they would cause mischief or injuries. In Cornish they’re called Bucca which translates as ‘knocker’ because they were thought to hammer away at pit supports to cause cave-ins. So there we are - back to goblins and monsters.