Monday, July 29, 2013

“Molly be damned”

In 14th century Japan, a master sword maker doped molybdenum into his steel. This steel was used to produce samurai swords, which never rusted on dulled. But this knowledge died with the sword maker until it was rediscovered during the First World War. After Germany's chemical weapons their 43 tonnes 'Big Berthas' were the most feared weapons. Their twenty foot steel barrels could hurl a 16 inch, 2,200 pound shell to a distance of nine miles. But the Big Berthas heated up and warped after a few shots. The Krupp armament company of Germany discovered that they could strengthen the steel of the Berthas by adding molybdenum to it. Molybdenum has a melting point thousands of degrees more than iron. Its atoms are larger and so get excited slower, and they prevent the atoms of iron from rearranging when the temperature changes. The Germans had one problem; Germany had no supply of Molybdenum. The only known supplier was a bankrupt mining company in Colorado's Bartlett Mountains.  Molybdenum was a metal, with very poor demand and the cost of extraction was more than the market price. The mines were purchased from a local, by a banker named Otis King. Otis had adopted a new extraction technique, with which he managed to extract nearly 3 tons of pure molybdenum in a year. But the world demand for Molybdenum was only about 2 tons and this new found Molybdenum sent the prices in the market crashing. But all these activities in a remote corner of US, did not go unnoticed by the Germans. Immediately, Metallgesellschaft, a German mining giant appointed it's US subsidiary 'American metal' to get its hands on the mine. Max Schott, who was managing the subsidiary, let his goons and lawyers loose, to get the mine from Otis King. The mine workers and their families were threatened. King himself was roughed and thrown off a sheer cliff (a well placed snow bank saved him). The Germans did everything short of downright slaughter to hinder the work of King's mine. The gritty workers took to calling the metal "Molly be damned". Although King had a faint idea, no one else in Europe or America knew, why the Germans were so desperate to get hold of Molybdenum. Finally in 1916, when a few captured berthas were reverse engineered by the British, by melting them down, did the allies discovered the secret of German 'wundermetall'.

Since the US did not enter the World War until 1917, they had no reason to monitor 'American Metal'. Finally when they did investigate the company in 1918, they realised that Otis King had sold the mine to Schott for a paltry 40,000$ and all the metal was already shipped to Germany. The US fed froze the companies stock and accounts, but it was too late. In 1918, Germany's molysteel guns were shelling Paris from an astonishing distance of 75 miles. After the armistice in 1919, Schott's company went bankrupt. King returned to mining and became a millionaire by persuading Henry Ford to use molysteel in engine cars.


No comments:

Post a Comment