Field of Science

Ephemeral Elements

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were hotbeds of elemental discoveries (literally and figuratively). New elements came — and on occasion went. Some were known elements in unknown guises, such as previously unrecognized allomorphs. Others, like didymium, weren't elements at all, but mixtures of as yet to be identified elements (in this case neodymium and praseodymium). Some were more ephermeral than others.

Yesterday I ran across a description of the discovery of a new element in an 1890 issue of Chemical News: damarium, oddly enough reported in the Notes & Queries section and not among the research papers. The report of the gaseous element, collected in Damara Land (present day Namibia) was a bit over the top, even for a time when flowery prose was in style in scientific papers: "One of the party had in his hat a branch of a shrub, which in a very short time lost its green colour and assumed a violet blue..."

One contemporary report assumes it is a hoax, but several sources were not so quick to dismiss the claim, particularly in a period when elemental identity was in flux. At least one commenter wondered if it might be "helium" — an element as yet undiscovered on earth.

I wonder if it's worth tracking down the original cite if I can (the Chemiker Zeitung is available on microfilm at the Othmer). Ah...Google books has it here.

German chemical humor or not? What do you think?

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