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The History of Nickel

The mineral kupfernickel described by U. Hiarne, in 1694, has the appearance of a copper ore, but not the smallest particle of copper can be extracted from it. According to F. X. M. Zippe, the word " nickel " appears to have been used amongst the miners as a Schimpf name, that is, a disparaging or derogatory term derived maybe from Nikolaus; if so, then, as suggested by A. G. Charleton, the term " kupfernickel" might be translated " Old Nick's copper," and so J. Woodward called it cuprum nicolai. We are told - vide cobalt - that the mediaeval Saxon miners working the silver ores encountered minerals which had the appearance of good silver ores, but, when smelted, emitted a disagreeable smell, and yielded no silver. The miners concluded that these ores were bewitched by the Nixes and Cobolds that dwelt underground. The objectionable minerals were thrown on to the waste-heaps, and called contemptuously Nixes' ore and Cobolds' ore. Centuries afterwards these minerals were found to be the arsenides of two new metals, and the names of the metals, cobalt and nickel, are thus derived from a mediaeval superstition. The history was discussed by W. H. Baldwin.

The mineral, niccolite, its modern cognomen. The idea that kupfernickel is a copper compound seems to have prevailed at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century, for in 1726, J. H. Linck said that it is a cobalt ore mixed with copper; and J. GL Wallerius, that it is a copper-red ore consisting of cobalt, iron, and arsenic. Analogous views were held by J. A. Cramer, J. F. Henckel, and C. von Linnaeus in the first half of the eighteenth century.

In 1751, A. F. Cronstedt published in Stockholm a report of his examination of some ores in the cobalt mines of Helsingland, Sweden. When the earth under examination was weathered, it acquired a green crust, which furnished long crystals of a green sulphate or vitriol. When the sulphate was calcined, it furnished a grey calx, or colcothar, which when reduced yielded a yellowish, hard, brittle metal with a white fracture. The metallic part of the vitriol furnished with borax a brown glass. He therefore inferred that the earth contained in addition to iron and cobalt a new semi-metal. When the soln. of the semi-metal in acid was treated with a fixed alkali, it yielded a greenish-white precipitate free from copper. A. F. Cronstedt then showed that the new semi-metal was the dominant base in kupfernickel, and he accordingly retained the affix of reproach - nickel - for the new semi-metal. He found that the kupfernickel of Freiberg contained arsenic, sulphur, nickel, and iron; and that the speiss obtained in the preparation of smalt contained a relatively large proportion of nickel. Nickel or nickel calx was found to unite readily with sulphur, forming a yellow compound which when roasted furnished nickel calx. Nickel forms a hard, white alloy with copper, which, unlike nickel free from copper, forms in the borax bead a green glass, and a soln. of the alloy in acid gives a precipitate of copper when treated with zinc or iron. These facts were considered to demonstrate that nickel itself is free from copper.

Most chemists accepted A. F. Cronstedt's nickel as a new element, but, as T. Bergman stated, some - e.g., B. G. Sage (1772), and A. G. Monnet (1775) - "were led rather by vague conjecture and specious appearance than by satisfactory experiment," and retained the old opinion that kupfernickel is a compound of iron, copper, cobalt, and arsenic. They also considered cobalt and nickel to be the same element. T. Bergman then examined the new element with the idea of finding if the characteristics of A. F. Cronstedt's nickel were sufficient to establish its right to recognition as an element sui generis. T. Bergman concluded that whilst with the knowledge then available "it was not possible to obtain a perfect and complete purification of nickel from all heterogeneous mixtures," sufficient was known to establish the right of nickel to recognition as a metal with distinct properties of its own which persist in all its combinations. He added:

Vague suspicions that nickel, cobalt, and manganese can be generated from iron because of the difficulty involved in preparing the metals free from iron, must give way to phenomena and properties which are constant, and the metals themselves must be regarded as of an origin altogether distinct and peculiar to themselves. There is no doubt that many well-known metals, acknowledged to be distinct substances, would not endure more severe trials than does nickel.... If the genesis of natural productions is to be established by fanciful metamorphoses, the whole truth and certainty of natural philosophy must soon be overturned. So long as plausible conjectures are substituted for opinions formed on the sure basis of experiment, we shall always embrace the shadow for the substance.

N. Leblanc raised some objections to T. Bergman's conclusion that nickel is a chemical individual sui generis, but the work of J. L. Proust, J. B. Richter, L. J. Thenard, and R. Tupputi removed all doubts, and since that time nickel has occupied a place in the list of elements. The history of nickel has been discussed by M. E. Weeks, D. F. Hehnemann, W. H. Baldwin, R. Kirwan, and F. Kapff.

The work of G. Kruss and F. W. Schmidt led them to attribute the anomalous positions of nickel and cobalt in the periodic table to the presence in ordinary nickel and cobalt of an unknown, foreign element which was named gnomium, but this opinion was not supported by the work of C. Winkler, L. Mond and co-workers, P. Schutzenberger, and T. W. Richards and A. S. Cushman. A new element was reported by L. C. von Vest to be present in nickel ore, and he proposed to call it junonium or sirium, whilst L. W. Gilbert suggested vestaium or vestium, but the alleged element was shown by M. Faraday to be a mixture of nickel, iron, sulphur, and arsenic. T. Dahll reported a new element - named norwegium - in gersdorffite, but the report has not been confirmed.

The analysis of the early Chinese alloy, packfong, by G. von Engestrom, in 1776; and the analyses of Bactrian coins, probably 200 B.C., by W. Flight, and G. Charleton, show that, at these remote periods, the ores employed for making coinage metal contained some nickel - vide infra, the copper-nickel, and the copper-nickel-zinc alloys. In 1777, J. C. F. Meyer noted that a Siberian meteorite when treated with sulphuric acid gave a green soln. which became blue when treated with ammonium chloride, but J. L. Proust, in 1799, is generally considered to have been the first to demonstrate the presence of nickel in meteoritic iron - vide infra, nickel-iron alloys.

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