Vanadium was discovered not once but twice. In 1801 the Spanish mineralogist Andrés Manuel del Río, working in Mexico City, analysed a sample of the mineral now known as vanadite and concluded that it contained a new element. He first named the element panchromium, from the Greek for ‘all the colours’, as it formed many different coloured compounds, then as these compounds all turned red on heating, he settled on erythronium, meaning red. Unfortunately for del Río, when he sent a sample to his friend Alexander von Humboldt for verification, the analysis reported the presence of chromium only and von Humboldt rejected del Río’s claim of a new element. It wasn’t until 1830 that a Swede, Nils Gabriel Sefström, rediscovered the element and named it after the Norse goddess Vanadis (Freja). That year, Friedrich Wöhler reanalysed del Río’s samples and showed that they did indeed contain vanadium – del Río was ultimately given the credit but not the privilege of choosing the name.
To represent the Spanish discovery of vanadium, I have used a Moorish pattern of the kind that would have been familiar to del Rio from his native Castile. It is the symmetry and geometry of these intricate Moorish designs that lies at the root of the blackwork patterns popularised in Britain by Catherine of Aragon in the sixteenth century.
It could also be said that platinum was discovered twice. It is found in its natural state in South America, in regions of modern-day Colombia and Ecuador, and was known and used by the native civilizations of the region. Once the ‘New World’ had been discovered by Europeans, this unusual silvery metallic substance became known to the conquistadors and was referred to as platina – the diminutive form of the Spanish for silver, plata, as it was thought to be inferior to silver. Spanish naval officer and scientist Antonio de Ulloa collected and studied samples of the metal. In 1748 he published the first scientific description of platinum and so is generally credited with being its discoverer.
To recognise the South American origins of this element and its use in pre-Columbian times, I have used a pattern typical of the geometric ‘tocapu’ motifs found in Incan textiles, and example of which is picture below.
With thanks to Fernando @gomobel for drawing my attention to the Spanish discoverers of these elements. It should be noted that tungsten too was discovered by Spanish scientists, but ended up with a Norse name. More of tungsten in a forthcoming post.