Extracting minerals from deep underground can be a risky business even now. Imagine the scene several hundred years ago with just a flame for light, the likelihood of encountering pockets of toxic or flammable gas, and significant risk of tunnel collapse . Small wonder that miners in these times believed their tunnels to be inhabited by goblins and demons.
It is thought that cobalt (represented here by a pit wheel) derives its name from the crafty German ‘Kobold’ demon (itself named after the Greek ‘kobalos’, a mischievous satyr). The cobalt ore mined in Germany in the fifteenth century seemed somehow bewitched: attempts to extract anything useful from it by smelting were fruitless and the arsenic also present in the ore took its toll on miners’ health.
When the miners discovered something that resembled copper yet weren’t able to extract any copper from it, they blamed goblins (little devils) for stealing the copper, and called the ore kupfernickel – the devil’s copper. They were unable to extract copper because there was none there, but it did contain what Swedish chemist Axel Fredrik Cronstedt later extracted and named nickel, represented here by a devil’s pitchfork.
For more on these goblins and demons, there are some fascinating extracts from contemporary texts and a charming woodcut showing a 16th century mining demon (below) in Antimony, Gold and Jupiter’s Wolf – how the elements were named by Peter Wothers – another of my favourite books.