8/17/11 - molybdenum, tungsten and war

In today's excerpt - molybdenum and tungsten. A key German advantage in World War I was Big Bertha, a forty-three ton gun which could fire a 16-inch, 2,200 pound shell nine miles. However, after a few days of firing, the twenty-two foot steel barrel would be useless since the iron in steel has a low melting point. The solution? Molybdenum from America in World War I and tungsten from supposedly neutral Portugal in World War II:

"The famous Krupp armament company found a recipe for strengthening steel: spiking it with molybdenum. Molybdenum ... could withstand the excessive heat because it melts at 4,750°F, thousands of degrees hotter than iron, the main metal in steel.

"Back in the trenches, the Germans were soon blazing away at the French and British with a second generation of 'moly steel' guns. But Germany soon faced another huge Bertha setback—it had no supply of molybdenum and risked running out. In fact, the only known supplier was a bankrupt, nearly abandoned mine on Bartlett Mountain in Colorado.

"Before World War I, a local had laid claim to Bartlett upon discovering veins of ore that looked like lead or tin. Those metals would have been worth at least a few cents per pound, but the useless molybdenum he found cost more to mine than it fetched, so he sold his mining rights to one Otis King. ... Always enterprising, King adopted a new extraction technique ... and quickly liberated fifty-eight hundred pounds of pure molybdenum—which more or less ruined him. Those nearly three tons exceeded the yearly world demand for molybdenum by 50 percent, which meant King hadn't just flooded the market, he'd drowned it. Noting at least the novelty of King's attempt, the U.S. government mentioned it in a mineralogical bulletin in 1915.

"Few noticed the bulletin except for a behemoth international mining company based in Frankfurt, Germany, with a U.S. branch in New York. According to one contemporary account, Metallgesellschaft had smelters, mines, refineries, and other 'tentacles' all over the world. As soon as the company directors ... read about King's molybdenum, they mobilized and ordered their top man in Colorado, Max Schott, to seize Bartlett Mountain. ...

"King had a dim idea what Molly did in Germany, but he was about the only non-German in Europe or North America who did. Not until the British captured German arms in 1916 and reverse-engineered them by melting them down did the Allies discover the wundermetall. ... The United States didn't enter World War I until 1917, so it had no special reason to monitor Metallgesellschaft's subsidiary in New York, especially considering its patriotic name, American Metal. When the U.S. government began asking questions around 1918, American Metal claimed that it legally owned the mine, since the harried Otis King had sold it to Schott for a paltry $40,000. It also admitted that ... it just happened to ship all that molybdenum to Germany. The feds quickly froze Metallgesellschaft's U.S. stock and took control of Bartlett Mountain. Sadly, those efforts came too late to disable Germany's Big Berthas. As late as 1918, Germany used molysteel guns to shell Paris from the astonishing distance of seventy-five miles. ...

"[One world war later], Nazi Germany coveted tungsten for making machinery and armor-piercing missiles, and its lust for [it] surpassed even its lust for looted gold, which Nazi officials happily bartered for tungsten. And who were the Nazis' trading partners? ... It was supposedly neutral Portugal whose tungsten fed the wolfish appetite of the German kriegwerks. ...

"Proving his worth as a former professor of economics, [Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio] Salazar leveraged his country's near monopoly on the metal (90 percent of Europe's supply) into profits 1,000 percent greater than peacetime levels. ...

"Tungsten is one of the hardest metals known, and adding it to steel made for excellent drill bits and saw heads. Plus, even modest-sized missiles tipped with tungsten—so-called kinetic energy penetrators—could take down tanks. The ... Nazi regime spent its entire tungsten reserve by 1941, at which point the Fuehrer himself got involved. Hitler ordered his ministers to grab as much tungsten as the trains across conquered France could carry ...

"Even stalwart Britain couldn't be bothered about the tungsten that was helping to cut down its lads. Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately referred to Portugal's tungsten trade as a 'misdemeanor,' and ... added that Salazar was 'quite right' to trade tungsten with Britain's avowed enemies. ...

" Salazar ...  played the Axis and Allies brilliantly with vague promises, secret pacts, and stalling tactics that kept the tungsten trains chugging. He had increased the price of his country's one commodity from $1,100 per ton in 1940 to $20,000 in 1941, and he'd banked $170 million in three frenzied years of speculation. Only after running out of excuses did Salazar institute a full tungsten embargo against the Nazis on June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, by which point the Allied commanders were too preoccupied (and disgusted) to punish him. I believe it was Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind who said that fortunes can be made only during the building up or tearing down of an empire, and Salazar certainly subscribed to that theory. In the so-called wolfram war, the Portuguese dictator had the last lycanthropic laugh."


Sam Kean


The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements


Back Bay Book, Little Brown and Company


Copyright 2010 by Sam Kean


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment