42. Molybdenum: Conventional Weapons

Before we talk about one big gun, let’s discuss 1,500 years of military technology.

Featured above: The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II orders his ships to sail over dry land.

Show Notes

Update, December 11, 2019: Jon Sandridge noted an error toward the very end of the episode, when I was talking about life’s dependence on molybdenum. As he says in the comments below:

Nitrogenases are found only in certain bacteria, so any Molybdenum in our bodies is not being used to make a nitrogenase. Nitrogen fixation is indeed vital to all life, but very few organisms can actually manage it. Some plants have special structures in their roots which harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria and are thus able to grow in soils with little or no nitrogen. Legumes are the best known of these plants.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. It’s been a little while since I wrote this episode, but I believe I confused nitrogenase with sulfite oxidase and xanthine oxidase. All three of those contain molybdenum, but only the latter two are in our bodies.

Thank you, Jon! If anyone else ever spots an error like that, please do let me know.

It breaks my heart a little to include a supposedly historical story and include the qualifier “apocryphal.” I vastly prefer to validate facts like those, or else not include them at all. This episode’s research led me down a long and winding road that ultimately led nowhere satisfying. Here’s what that looked like.

It started with this passage from Sam Kean’s book, The Disappearing Spoon:

It’s an excellent book that I consult at the start of research for each episode. Kean’s work, in turn, is well researched, footnoted, and cited. This particular fact, however, is not cited. No big deal. In a case like this, it usually doesn’t take too much research to corroborate an anecdote.

It’s certainly easy to find this story reproduced elsewhere. It appears in a number of books and websites. All respect to those publications, but this does not help. In fact, it looks a little shady — none of these places are even casually referencing a primary source. It’s starting to look like a myth. I need to find a primary source myself — maybe something from a museum that owns such a sword, or the German chemist’s research papers or something. That’s not precisely what I found next.

I found a letter to the editor in a 1970 issue of Black Belt, “The World’s Leading Magazine Of Self-Defense.”

This helped very little, although the cartoon is something new.

If I took anything from this letter, it’s that the story about the sword has been around for a long time and has been circulated widely enough for amateur weapons buffs to know it. The search continues.

Now, I got a little optimistic when this article from Scientific American lit up my screen. Talk about a reputable source, eh? And from 1937, no less — that’s even closer to the turn of the century than 1970! Now we’re getting somewhere:

How incredibly disappointing! A phrase leaning so hard on the passive voice as “The story is told” has no place in a respectable publication. Alas, I moved on.

An article in a journal called “Steel Facts” looked very promising:

Surely I was finally on to something. I presumed that a headline like that would lead off a story with the kind of details I sought. Sadly, after some very creative searching of this minute chunk of text, it became clear that the headline had little to do with the article:

I did finally find something valuable, eventually. This passage by the same man who lamented molybdenum’s polysyllabic nature:

Now there’s something good!

This gave me a lot to go off of, in particular, two actual names of people I could try to track down.

And yet, looking for M. Miyajima and O. Kochi led to nothing.

As far as I can tell, this is as far back as research can take us. The trail goes cold here. I don’t think Dr. Kochi made up this story, but perhaps any further research materials are only available in Japanese, a language I sadly do not know. Or it might even be possible that this information is inaccurate, not through any malice, but just by virtue of getting passed from person to person. It can happen so easily. As an example, I found a nearly identical version of the text above which referred not to Dr. O Kochi, but to Dr. D. Kochi:

Same author and everything!

It was around that time I threw in the towel. The more time I spent tracking down Masamune’s sword, the less time I’d have to verify a story like Mehmed’s naval voyage over land. (And yes, I did find enough convincing sources to believe the veracity of that story! As always, you can check the works cited below.)

I was disappointed, but indeed the story has been around for quite some time. Like a story about Niobi or Pygmalion, maybe that’s enough to warrant its inclusion.

At any rate, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at what researching this show usually entails.

Masamune did in fact exist and did forge some legendary blades. One place a modern audience might have seen the name is in the Final Fantasy series of role playing games. Masamune is the name of a legendary weapon that appears in some unique form in each entry in the series.

Other such weapons also appear in the series, though they never reference their real-world origins. For instance, a player can find a lance called Longinus. What the game never explains is that’s the name traditionally given to the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with a spear while he was on the cross.

A lot of people of my generation will know the song Istanbul (Not Constantinople) because it was sung by They Might Be Giants, and it was included in an episode of Tiny Toons:

But not everyone knows that it’s a cover. The song was written and performed by The Four Lads, debuting in 1953. Yes, 1953! The quincentenary of the Fall of Constantinople as described in this very episode! How’s that for a celebration?

Anyway, the original has a slightly different, slower feel:

Supposedly — and I had never heard this before — the song by The Four Lads was a sort of wink and a nod to Paul Whiteman’s 1928 song C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E:

The difference, as you can plainly see, is that Istanbul (Not Constantinople) is a good song, while literally no one has ever listened to C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E all the way through.

I-N-C-I-D-E-N-T-A-L-L-Y, the city only became known as Constantinople in the year 330 CE, when the Roman emperor Constantine (get it?) dedicated the city as the capital of his empire. That was part of a grand strategy to consolidate the Christian church (which is why it was a Christian city for the next thousand years). Prior to 330, the city was called Byzantion (and Lygos before that!) and that’s why it’s sometimes called the Byzantine Empire.

The city officially kept the name Constantinople for a long time. It was occasionally called “Istanbul,” which is a corruption of a Greek phrase that basically just means, “The city.” It’s similar to how my neighbors and I will sometimes call New York “the city,” because it’s obvious which one we’re talking about.

But “the city” wasn’t officially renamed Istanbul until 1930. That’s because the Ottoman Empire lasted until 1923! Well, 1930 is when the Turkish post office (might have) refused to deliver any more mail addressed to Constantinople. (Nat Geo perpetuates this story, but again, take it with a grain of salt — I didn’t even go looking for a primary source on that one.)

Anyway, in case anyone asks, that is why Constantinople got the works.

While we’re talking names, there is some moderate amount of controversy in academic circles about what to call that empire that preceded the Ottoman one. I decided to go with “Byzantine,” largely because I didn’t have time to talk about the prior history of the city (what with Constantine and everything). But the people who lived there wouldn’t have called it that. They saw themselves as Romans of the Roman Empire — or if it must be qualified, the East Roman Empire. “The Empire never ended,” and all that.

Mehmed II purchased his cannons from a shadowy figure named Orban (or sometimes Urban), an Eastern European engineer. The weird part is that before approaching the Ottomans, Orban tried to sell his superior firepower to Constantinople. Emperor Palaiologos was extremely interested, but he couldn’t afford Orban’s high price tag. Salesman gotta sell, so he moved on, and wouldn’t you know? Mehmed could afford the big guns.

Imagine how differently that could have gone!

As I mentioned, I found enough research to confidently say yes, the Ottomans did drag their ships over dry land. It wouldn’t have been a last-minute decision — they had probably constructed a railway or road of greased logs for that very purpose. But they hadn’t even pioneered the technique. The Greeks had done something similar almost 2,000 years earlier, and Vikings did such a thing with regularity.

The important thing to remember is that we’re not talking about Spanish galleons, here. These were much smaller ships, which were conducting warfare in a crowded harbor, not the open ocean. However…

We can’t really talk about carrying ships over dry land without mentioning Fitzcarraldo, one unhinged man’s film about another unhinged man. The 1982 movie by Werner Herzog tells the true-ish tale of Brian Fitzgerald, a rich rubber baron who brought a steamship into the Amazon basin because… Opera, or something?

The film was an unmitigated disaster. Herzog refused to used models, miniatures, or any kind of special effects whatsoever — he was going to pull this 320-ton steamship over a mountain, by god, or it wasn’t going to happen at all.

That went as well as you might imagine. The West German crew exploited indigenous communities like it was 1499, and captured it all on film, too. Amazingly, only three people got injured. The original lead actor got so ill that he had to be replaced; for some reason, Herzog decided to cast Klaus Kinski, a man who possessed a violent hatred for Herzog. One of the extras on the film offered to murder Kinski, but Herzog needed to finish the film. And yes, they did pull that boat over that mountain:

I only know of the film, I haven’t seen it, so on its quality I cannot comment. Do chime in below if you have an opinion.

There’s a lot more I would have liked to mention in these show notes, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time to dedicate it. So if you’re curious and sufficiently motivated, here are some further topics of interest you may want to research on your own:

  • The Dardanelles Gun
  • The Battle of Pavia
  • The Nazis’ V-3 supergun
  • The difference between conflagration (low explosives) and detonation (high explosives)

Finally, thanks to friend of the show Josh Crowley for reminding me of Crow’s “durable molybdenum frame.” Here’s an unrelated clip from the show that mentions the periodic table:

Episode Script

There’s an apocryphal story that sometime around the year 1330, the legendary Japanese swordsmith Masamune accidentally knocked some molybdenum into his latest creation. 1 2Rather than scrap and start over, he decided to finish the work, because you never know, right?

That turned out to be a great idea, because the sword he forged was incredibly strong and practically unbreakable.

Masamune would go on to create similarly storied swords, made strong by the power of molybdenum. But he didn’t pass the recipe on to anyone else, so this technology died when he did.

It would be nearly six hundred years before anyone would discover this secret again — supposedly, a German chemist, who analyzed one of Masamune’s weapons. It’s about that time, as we’ll see later, that we start inching toward verifiable stories again.

Whether any of this happened or not, it’s in the right spirit. For one brief moment in time, molybdenum was a secret weapon.

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re taking shots at molybdenum.

Once more for those in the back: Mo-lyb-den-um. It’s definitely one of the more notorious elements, in terms of pronunciation. When one Dr. G. W. Sargent was presenting a paper on today’s element in Detroit in 1921, he started by saying,

Although the author has used the word molybdenum for years, everytime he pronounces it, he thinks of the slang expression ‘you said a mouthful’ and sympathizes with those who utter it for the first time.”3

Strange to think that such a tongue-tying name isn’t even its own, but borrowed from another, much more famous metal. Molybdos is the ancient Greek word for “lead,” because for most of history, people figured that molybdenum-containing minerals and graphite were the same as lead. It’s an understandable mistake to make: All three of those things are dark metals, sometimes occur together in the same minerals, and will leave a mark when rubbed against paper. Incidentally, that’s why the writing material in a pencil is called “lead,” even though it’s made of graphite.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele, of green arsenic fame, finally set the record straight. He was the first to identify and differentiate between the three materials in 1778, with the Swedish chemist Peter Jacob Hjelm isolating it a few years later.

After that, nothing really happened with molybdenum for over a century. It wasn’t terribly common, and even when it was found, it was hard to extract. And then, even once a substantial amount was isolated, it was too difficult to work with on an industrial scale.

One of the largest molybdenum deposits in the world exists in Colorado — fittingly enough, near a town called “Leadville.”4 Since it was still essentially worthless at the dawn of the 20th century, Otis King purchased the mineral rights atop that deposit for a paltry sum. Determined to make a good return on investment, King motivated his superintendent to invent a new method of extracting molybdenum from the ore.

This method was called “flotation,” and it was a pretty revolutionary industrial technology. It works by making a slurry of the ore, mixing it up with other chemicals in an enormous vat. This mixture is formulated so that the desired element, in this case molybdenum, will float on top of all the carbon, iron, sulfur, or whatever else happens to be in the mixture. It can then be skimmed off the top, like cream from milk.

Flotation was a much cheaper method of extraction than what had come before, and King went wild. In 1915, his mining company produced 5,824 pounds of element 42. That was more molybdenum than anyone had ever seen. That was more molybdenum than anyone even wanted. He had surpassed the global annual demand for molybdenum by fifty percent.

Single-handedly, he had deluged the market for his only product. In the same way the Hall-Heroult process reduced the price of aluminum more than 600 percent, King’s molybdenum was rendered even more worthless than before he pulled it out of the ground. His miners took to calling their haul “molly-be-damned.”

Whether out of amusement or pity, someone published this result in a mineralogical bulletin for the U.S. government before the end of 1915. Most readers would have skipped right over the news, or perhaps given a slightly amused smile before moving on.

Max Schott was not most people.

Schott was an employee of the American Metal Company. He started at the company as a young man, working in its New York offices. But by this time, Schott had come to be an important and shadowy figure for the company. You might call him a fixer. This government bulletin caught the attention of Schott’s employers, and they promptly dispatched him to Colorado to convince King to give up his claim.

Schott arrived in early 1916 with plenty of muscle in tow, and began a campaign of harassment. Assault and theft were perfectly valid tactics in their book, but so were frivolous lawsuits. Legality was of no consequence. Schott sought to torment King by any and all means. King hired Jimmie “Two-Gun” Adams for protection, but that didn’t stop King from getting mugged and thrown off the side of a cliff. He only survived due to a fortunate landing in a deep snowbank.

Sadly, this is not a tale where the underdog takes the day. Beleaguered and broke, King accepted $40,000 from American Metal and disappeared.

For the next two years, Schott headed the company that drew molybdenum from the earth and sent it to its parent company, American Metal. The lawsuits were over, and the company made its money through the entirely legitimate metals trade. No one had any reason to suspect that every last ounce of American Metal’s output was shipped across the Atlantic to supply the German army during World War I.

In medieval Europe, just about the safest place you could be was behind the walls of a fortification. The threat of war was constant, and that war had a common shape.

Pitched battles, where both sides choose a time and place to run toward each other, make for easy reenactments, but they’ve never been as popular as they appear in movies. Outside of naval warfare, most battles in medieval Europe consisted of an attacking force laying siege to a walled city or fortress.

These battles were about as lopsided as you could imagine. From their protected and elevated position, defenders could rain arrows, bolts, hot oil, and stones down upon the attackers, whose job was mostly to run uphill as fast as they could without getting killed. If they made it as far as the defenders’ walls, sappers might be able to demolish them, but the odds were not in their favor.5

Cunning invaders invented technologies that spread quickly: Siege engines brought various advantages to attacking forces. For instance, catapults allowed attackers to launch projectiles from a safe distance, and siege towers protected and elevated the aggressors on their approach.

In response, defenders built more robust fortifications. Sometimes these innovations, while practical, were fairly straightforward: For instance, concentric castles required attackers to surmount multiple rings of high walls. In addition to significantly increasing the time and energy involved, it had the added effect of corralling invaders within small, contained areas called “killing fields.”6

Either side leapfrogged the other in technological advantage for centuries. With the trebuchet, an army could launch heavy stones, firebombs, and even diseased corpses from a great distance with deadly accuracy. Moats, outposts, and battlefield obstacles kept attacking forces from advancing too quickly.

Historically, we can see that the balance remained strongly in favor of the defenders, especially for cities. Take Constantinople. Plenty of other people have tried.

Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and its walls were famously impenetrable. The city was triple-fortified: First, by a moat twenty meters wide and seven meters deep, with a short wall on the inner edge. Behind that was a tall stone wall with towers from which archers could pick off invaders in the moat. The city’s third and final wall was its most impressive, twelve meters high and five meters thick. Siege engines were useless against such a substantial defense.7

In real life, those walls worked even better than they sound on paper. The city held off attacks in the year 678 CE, again in 718, and yet again in 821, 823, 860, 941, and 1043.

The city did finally suffer a couple embarrassing losses, most notably in 1204, when Christian crusaders suddenly, bafflingly decided to sack their allied city.8 But the spring of 1453 was truly a catastrophe.

Mehmed II believed it was his destiny to conquer Constantinople. The brazen 21-year-old sultan of the Ottoman Turks had been preparing for that fight practically his entire life. The Byzantine Empire was already in decline by this point, but taking its great walled capital would not be easy by any means.

However, Mehmed had an advantage that none of his predecessors possessed: cannons.

Gunpowder was already known in various parts of the world for centuries, especially in its form as the “fire lance” — essentially a black powder-fueled flamethrower.9 Guns were not yet widespread, but cannons had already been used in Europe and East Asia.10 11 12 Now, the Queen of Cities would be the target.

Constantinople’s Theodosian walls could easily deflect arrows and catapult projectiles, but a thousand-pound ball of marble travelling 600 miles per hour is a completely different matter.13 As the engineer who made these cannons claimed,

I have examined the walls of the city in great detail. I can shatter to dust not only these walls with the stones from my gun, but the very walls of Babylon itself.”14

He was trying to sell it, of course, but he was not overselling it. One of the cannons Mehmed brought to battle had a barrel 27 feet long, and took so long to load that it could only fire seven times in a day.15 But that was no problem — he had brought dozens of smaller cannons, too.

Equally potent as the cannons’ destructive force was their ability to inflict terror and damage morale.16 Imagine what it must have been like to hear a thunderous boom on a sunny day, to feel the ground shake beneath your feet, and to see an ominous cloud of smoke on the horizon. All that before the world around you is demolished and thrown in every direction.

Constantinople was protected by water on three sides, so any invaders had to plan for a naval battle on top of their land-borne assault. To thwart this, the defenders had blocked its inlet with a chain that physically barred any ships from entering. So the people of Constantinople must have been terribly surprised on April 22 when they awoke to see their harbor full of Ottoman ships, even though the Byzantine navy had seen nothing, and the chain blocking the inlet was still intact.

That’s because Mehmed had ordered his sailors to go around it. Not by sea — by land.

Overnight, the Ottomans hauled seventy of their ships out of the water, and with the raw strength of hundreds of oxen and men, dragged them across the land for one full mile to a position where they could launch them into the bay.17 18 19

This audacious move brought the Ottoman navy to Constantinople’s back door. And you can probably guess what all of those ships had on board: Cannons. The guns were even more effective on this front, against the city’s sea walls, which were less imposing than those facing the land.

After another month of softening up the city, Mehmed launched an all-out assault. Inside the walls, one of the gates had been carelessly left unlocked, granting the Turks free entry. They raised a flag, and Constantinople’s soldiers scattered in a panic. Mehmed’s army would almost certainly have been victorious anyway, but that is a particularly ignominious way for such a storied city to fall.

And it fell hard. The Ottomans pillaged without remorse, and worse. Four thousand citizens were killed, and more than ten times as many were sold into slavery. Priceless treasures were lost forever. Later that day, Mehmed strode into the city’s most famous Christian church, the Hagia Sophia, and declared that now, it was a mosque.

That’s not subtle, but it is symbolic: Constantinople had been a Christian city, possibly the most powerful in the world. Now those days were over. Constantinople became the capital of the sprawling Ottoman Empire, which nearly doubled in size during Mehmed’s thirty-year reign.

That may have been the most pivotal use of cannons in history up till that point, and for several years after, too. The day the city fell is one of several markers historians use to mark the end of the Medieval period.20 21 22 23 But the arms race never stopped.

Moats and killing fields were obsolete. In the age of gunpowder, forts were built to maximize the area defenders could blanket with artillery fire — usually by building them in a star or polygonal shape, ensuring clean, straight lines of sight. Engineers learned how to craft ammunition that was both heavier and more aerodynamic, and military minds discovered that grinding black powder to a floury consistency could triple its explosive power.24

In the 17th century, Swedish King Gustav II transformed the battlefield by putting away the big guns, instead focusing on smaller, more mobile cannons that only required two or three operators. Napoleon heavily depended upon cannons to handle affairs both foreign and domestic.25 By the turn of the 20th century, artillery had become a highly sophisticated science.

By comparison, tanks, airplanes, and submarines were practically brand-new inventions. They were used as instruments of war, but they lacked the maturity and grim efficiency of the tried-and-true bombardment. Indeed, World War I was overwhelmingly defined by the widespread use of artillery.

Soldiers fought on torn-up fields of mud laced with barbed wire. Explosive bombshells fell from the sky with neither method nor mercy. Without warning, ten men could instantly become nothing but sound and dust.

These were the conditions that forced armies to adopt “trench warfare,” where soldiers dug themselves into a ditch to provide cover while they slowly struggled to win mere inches on the battlefield. The shelling would only cease after dark, when weak and weary men would scamper above ground to repair fences or gather supplies.

By a wide margin, artillery fire was the leading cause of the war’s 20 million deaths.2627 28 Even those whose bodies were miraculously spared from the supersonic onslaught of white-hot metal were afflicted with equally severe scars on their psyche.

Shrapnel shells, gas projectiles, railway cannons, and more ghoulishly ingenious advances created this merciless environment. But for every engineer who stayed awake at night imagining “a higher form of killing,” there were just as many who simply wanted to show off a gun that was bigger than everyone else’s.

Leading this effort was Krupp AG, a German weapons conglomerate founded in the 16th century. As one of Europe’s largest, wealthiest companies, they had an R&D department that was well suited to the task. By the opening days of the war in 1914, they had created a monster: A superheavy cannon that could deliver a 16-inch, 2,200-pound shell to a target over five miles away.

Clearly, this needed to be a large machine. It was so large that it took six hours for a crew of 240 to assemble the thing on-site, and weighed 47 tons. Its great bulk lent the gun a very memorable nickname: The Big Bertha.

It performed as well as the Germans had hoped: With only two such guns, the German army laid waste to fortresses in Belgium in just five days. This kept clear the path to France, and significantly affected the rest of the war.

There was one major problem, however: These monumentally large guns required impressive quantities of black powder to deliver their shells, and the Big Berthas were subject to rapid wear and tear. After only a couple of days, the gun’s barrel would become scorched and melt beyond the point of usefulness.

This problem did not last long. German scientists knew that while steel melts around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, alloying it with a small amount of molybdenum could allow that steel to withstand temperatures nearly twice as hot. (Supposedly, this information was gleaned by whichever German chemist had analyzed Masamune’s unbreakable sword.)

But Germany didn’t have any such resources within its borders. What they had was full control over a molybdenum mining corporation in the United States. That would do just fine.

See, Max Schott’s Climax Mine company was a subsidiary of American Metal, but despite the patriotic name, American Metal was in turn fully owned by a German company called Metallgesellschaft.29 All the molybdenum that American miners pulled out of the Colorado ground was getting sent directly to the Kaiser’s army. This went unnoticed for the longest time — largely because the United States didn’t enter the war until 1917, one year before its end. At that point the U.S. Government did seize American Metal’s assets, but it made little difference. By then, the company had supplied enough molybdenum to last the German Army for years.

And the Germany Army soon found a use for element 42 even more intimidating than the legendary Big Berthas.

The 7am Good Friday service at the Parisian church Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais must have been especially solemn on March 29, 1918. The holy day is already a somber affair focusing on the suffering, crucifixion, and death of Jesus Christ. On top of that, the war had dragged on for four years, the cost of living was skyrocketing, and what population remained had to deal with food shortages and influenza outbreaks. Church services provided one of the few remaining semblances of a normal life.

Then without warning, at 7:18 am, the cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling came crashing down upon those devout worshipers. Panic followed. An attack, but how? From where? No one had heard any airplanes approach, nor any cannons fire. The first theory was that the Germans must have dropped a bomb from an extremely high-flying zeppelin.

A new explosion rocked the city every fifteen minutes. Keen eyes quickly deduced that these were not bombs, but artillery shells. The truth of the matter was almost unbelievable: Paris was being shelled by artillery stationed beyond the Forest of Saint-Gobain — nearly eighty miles away.30

No other gun in the world had a range even half as impressive. For reference, an equivalent situation would be a cannoneer setting up right in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall and firing explosive shells into the heart of midtown Manhattan.31

An American ambassador described the scene at the church:

The appalling destruction wrought by this shell is … probably not equalled by any single discharge of any hostile gun in the cruelty and horrors of its results. In no other one spot in Paris, even where poverty had gathered on that holy day to worship, could destruction of life have been so great. Nearly a hundred mangled corpses lying in the morgues, with almost as many seriously wounded, attested to the measure of the toll exacted.”32

This was the German artillery’s crowning glory: A 380-millimeter naval gun fitted with a 34-meter molybdenum-reinforced tube, capable of firing shells faster than 5,000 feet per second.33 This weapon actually shot its ammunition clear into the stratosphere, 25 miles above the Earth — the first projectile to ever reach such a height.

It was officially named the “Kaiser Wilhelm Geschutz,” but everyone called it the “Paris Gun.” That’s fitting: It had been designed and built for the express purpose of bombarding the French capital from safely behind German lines. Paris remained under siege from these guns for 140 days, averaging 20 shells per day.34

Paris suffered considerable property damage, and ultimately, 250 people were killed and another 620 injured.35 This is awful, but scarcely compares to the German bombing of London, which resulted in 5,000 casualties.36

That’s because the supergun wasn’t meant to inflict maximum damage. It wasn’t even capable of targeting specific locations within Paris — the Germans just knew their shells would probably land somewhere in the city.

No, the Paris Gun was an instrument of terror. By subjecting the citizens to constant, unpredictable shelling, the German army hoped to break French morale — much like Mehmed’s cannon fire instilled fear in the citizens of Constantinople.

The Paris Gun was never deployed anywhere else. As the Allies closed in toward the end of the war, the artillery crew broke down the behemoth weapons and shipped them in pieces back to Germany. Presumably they were destroyed upon arrival, because those pieces were never found.

Had it even succeeded in its campaign of terror? William Sharp, the ambassador who witnessed the devastation at Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais, would have us believe otherwise:

the exceptional circumstances under which this tragedy occurred, both as to the sacred character of the day and the place, have greatly aroused the indignation, of the people of Paris … [I]nstead of terrorizing the people, shells of the great cannons, as well as the bombs dropped from the German airplanes, only serve to strengthen the resolve of the French to resist, to the last man if necessary, the invasion of such a foe.”

It seems that this megaweapon, impressive though it was, completely backfired. Perhaps the Germans hadn’t expected the citizens of Paris to possess molybdenum backbones.

Element 42 was never again so widely used in war. By the time World War II rolled around, engineers had moved on to molybdenum’s downstairs neighbor, tungsten, an even stronger refractory metal. So unless you have access to museum-grade military artifacts, you’ll want to look elsewhere when stocking your element collection.

Molybdenum’s similarities to graphite are more than just skin-deep. When ground to a powder, both make for a superior solid lubricant. Molybdenum especially excels in high-pressure, high-temperature environments, but it’s also popularly used in a much less extreme situation: as axle lubricant for pinewood derby cars. Ask your nearest boy scout for assistance.

As far as I can tell, only one character in all entertainment is made of molybdenum: Crow, one of the victims subject to an endless barrage of cheesy movies on the television show Mystery Science Theatre 3000. In episode 814, “Riding with Death,” he casually mentions this fact. It’s confirmed in episode 908, “Touch of Satan,” when Mike Nelson piles rocks on top of Crow and compliments his “durable molybdenum frame.” Sadly, this information is almost certainly irrelevant unless you are trapped on the Satellite of Love.

Back on Earth, we all have a little molybdenum in our bodies. It’s a minuscule amount, but it performs a critical task: as part of the enzyme nitrogenase, it cracks the ironclad bond between two nitrogen atoms, converting them to ammonia. All known life is utterly dependent on this process to exist.

You might say that element 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. Show notes are packed this week, with stories about music, movies, and dead-end research. To read those, visit episodic table dot com slash M o. Also, there are only three more days to nominate the show for a People’s Choice Podcast Award. If you’d like to help out, visit episodic table dot com to find out how. If you’re listening to this in the future, perhaps you wouldn’t mind leaving a review on iTunes instead?

Next time, we’ll stay in the lab to synthesize an episode on technetium.

Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that crucially, no one ever figured out what the question was.


  1. Scientific American, Vol. 156, No. 4, Polygamous Molybdenum. Philip A. Smith, April 1937.
  2. Transactions Of The American Society For Steel Treating, Vol. 1, p. 589. G. W. Sargent, 1921.
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2 Replies to “42. Molybdenum: Conventional Weapons”

  1. Nitrogenases are found only in certain bacteria, so any Molybdenum in our bodies is not being used to make a nitrogenase. Nitrogen fixation is indeed vital to all life, but very few organisms can actually manage it. Some plants have special structures in their roots which harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria and are thus able to grow in soils with little or no nitrogen. Legumes are the best known of these plants.
    Anyhoo, great episode, great podcast, etc.

    1. That’s an excellent catch! I wish I’d cited my sources better for that section; I imagine I must have confused nitrogenase for sulfite oxidase and xanthine oxidase, molybdenum-dependent enzymes that the body does use.

      Thank you for leaving a comment about it! I’ll add that to the show notes above. And thanks for listening!

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