Friday, August 16, 2013

A village that made periodic history

In 1701, a teenager named Johann Friedrich Bottger, was attracting crowds on the streets of Poland. He was converting two silver coins into a single gold coin. It was so convincing to the local population, that the story of the boy reached the King of Poland; Augustus the Strong. The boy was hauled before the king and locked into a castle and asked to make gold for the king. Bottger could not meet the kings demand, since his alchemy, like you guessed, was a well woven trick. The king ordered Bottger to be hanged. Desperate to save his life, Bottger claimed he knew how to make porcelain.
Those days, Europe was smitten by porcelain, which was imported from China. The manufacture was a Chinese secret and the Europeans were desperate to break it. It was said that any king who could make porcelain, would wield great power and wealth. King Augustus had a man called Ehrenfried Walter Von Tschirnhaus, researching on porcelain; Bottger was made Tschirnhaus’s assistant. Tschirnhaus, had with him an oven which could reach a temperature of 3000F. This allowed them to melt and analyse porcelain. Soon the duo discovered the secret; one a white clay called Kaolin and secondly, they learnt that porcelain glaze and pottery had to be cooked together and not separately, like it was done elsewhere. The king was presented with the technique and he dreamed of becoming the most influential monarch of Europe. This also meant that the king had to preserve the secret, so now Bottger was locked up under tighter security, with all dreams of freedom blown away.

But the secret of porcelain leaked and people all over Europe started making it and even tinkering and improving it. Mines were opened all over Europe, to feed the burgeoning industry of porcelain. In 1780 a mine in Stockholm, on the isle of Ytterby (pronounced it-er-bee) was opened. Intriguingly the rocks at Ytterby produced exotic pigments and coloured glazes when processed. Today, anyone coming across such a property will first suspect lanthanides, but those days, no one had heard about them. Those days a chemist named Johan Gadolin, had created quite a name for himself as a geochemist. He lived in Finland, across the Baltic Sea from Stockholm. Amateur geologist began shipping unusual rocks from Ytterby to him to get his opinion. Little by little through Gadolins publication, the world began to hear about this remarkable little quarry. Soon chemist began visiting these rocks, and one by one new elements started to be discovered. Today six elements in the Periodic table are named after this little hamlet; more than any person or place or thing. It was the inspiration for Ytterbium, Yttrium, terbium and erbium. More elements kept popping out but chemist ran out of alphabets (‘rbium’, does not sound right). So holmium was chosen after Stockholm and thulium after the mythic name for Scandinavia. Today the small town of Ytterby is a pilgrimage, spot for periodic table fans.

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