Those people who’ve been involved with palladium’s history seem to harbor a dubious predilection for stretching the truth.
Before anything else, I need to thank Mr. John Rockwell yet again for his kindness and patience fulfilling such a bizarre request from a total stranger while he could have been enjoying the final days of this lovely summer. You can read his review in full on The New York Times website.
Checking My Sources: In addition to the works cited below, it’s worth adding that I leaned heavily on three books for this episode: The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean; Periodic Tales, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams; and Nature’s Building Blocks by John Emsley.
That’s not just true for this episode. Those three books are always the first place I turn when I begin research for a new episode, yet I practically never include them in my listed sources. Often that’s because I use them as inspiration before going off to perform my own independent verification. Regardless, it’s my hope that including them on the Resources page is penance enough to make up for it.
By the way: Nearly every modern source you can find about William Hyde Wollaston was written by a chemistry professor named Melvyn C. Usselman. His name simply keeps popping up — it’s quite impressive. He was almost certainly the world’s leading expert on Wollaston (and a few other chemists) until his death in 2015.
Breaking Movie Science: Ryan Carlyle took things a step further and spent several thousand words hypothesizing how Iron Man’s palladium-based arc reactor might actually work in real life (as opposed to Earth-199999). It is thorough, to say the least, but the short version is: The suit uses a Pd-103/Pd-107 radio-isotopic decay cell to generate an electrical current.
In general, Tony Stark is far too good at science. Just look at this:
If he’s capable of figuring out how to synthesize new heavy elements on his lunch break, shouldn’t he be a full-time researcher? Solving climate change or something? I mean, it’s canon that the Iron Man suits are capable of flying around and fighting crime autonomously.
But hey, he didn’t stop there. Remember when he invented time travel by spending about four and a half minutes spitballing on the subject?
I wish Howard Hughes had been that good.
A Forgetful Old Gasman Named Dieter: Walter Meyerhoff, the Stanford professor who criticized Fleischmann and Pons, was certainly a clever fellow. However, it was terribly annoying to try to read his poem aloud, because he didn’t appear to care one lick about preserving the meter.
No, Not That Palladium: There was another contemporary venue called The Palladium in New York, this one located at 53rd and Broadway. It catered to more of a jazz and Latin music audience. There’s a Bank of America there now.
Those Were The Days: I paid lip service to L’Amour, another well known club. That place was a hot spot for the heavy metal scene back in the ’80s and ’90s. I saw a few mentions that for people “in the know,” the club’s name was pronounced “la-morz.” I tend to care about that sort of thing, so I did a little checking. I decided to go with “la-moor” based on the venue’s own television commercial… which is a thing of pure joy:
I also came across this equally delightful video of heavy metal superfans outside the club. They look like they just walked off the set of Wayne’s World:
Bright College Days: I must once again apologize to Mr. Tom Lehrer for borrowing his wit.
In terms of the elements’ name recognition, palladium falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. You’ve probably heard it mentioned… somewhere, before. It certainly sounds like an element. It’s not as obscure as astatine, or praseodymium, but it’s not the first element on the periodic table that anyone thinks of, either. And it doesn’t enjoy the high cultural status of elements like neon, or silicon.
So palladium enthusiasts received a pleasant surprise in 2010 with the release of summer blockbuster Iron Man 2. The entire plot of the movie hinges on the element! Unfortunately, it gets painted in a rather unpleasant light — Iron Man is slowly dying from a chronic case of “palladium poisoning.” In fact, element 46 is so toxic that Tony Stark decides to synthesize an *entirely new element* rather than find a way to mitigate palladium’s side effects. 1
Of course, that’s only movie science. In our world, palladium is actually renowned for its non-toxic properties. But as we’ll see today, when it comes to palladium, people seem pretty comfortable bending the truth for the sake of a good story.
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 catching a show about palladium.
At the turn of the 19th century, William Hyde Wollaston was a successful doctor in London, but he was not a happy one. In a letter to a friend, he wrote:
The practice of physic is not calculated to make me happy … [and] I have fully determined & now declare that I have done with it. What I shall do instead I do not yet know. I feel no doubt of finding employment & turning my time to account in some way or other less irksome to me, for even if I turn waiter at a tavern ready to say ‘Yes Sir’ to everyone that calls at any hour of the day or night, I cannot be a greater slave.”2
This sounds a little melodramatic, but there’s something kind of noble about the sentiment. Who hasn’t fantasized about quitting a terrible job, regardless of the consequences? Wollaston actually had the nerve to go through with it.
Or at least, it sounds noble, but Wollaston conveniently left out one very pertinent fact: He had recently inherited eight thousand pounds from a distant relative.3 In case that doesn’t sound like an exorbitant sum, you should know that in today’s money, that amount was worth roughly three-quarters of a million pounds.
He wasn’t going to sit on his laurels and just live off that money, either. He struck a deal with an old friend, Smithson Tennant. The goal of their venture was to find a way to refine platinum ore into pure bars of malleable metal, but the most notable aspect of this business was its secrecy.4
Nobody knew about this partnership, not even close friends and family. It was difficult to refine platinum at the time, so any such process would need to be invented from scratch. Maintaining utter confidentiality would ensure a monopoly over the platinum market, at least until someone else figured it out.5
There were other reasons for secrecy, too. At the time, almost all the known platinum reserves were in South America, under tight control of the Spanish government. Tennant and Wollaston were entirely reliant upon ore smuggled out through Jamaica.6
Their gambit paid off — figuratively and literally. With ample supplies of platinum to work with, Wollaston had little difficulty solving his chemical puzzle. He was now the sole vendor of refined platinum, and that was quite a lucrative trade. In no time at all, he made enough money to move to a palatial mansion on London’s Buckingham Street — a home large enough to hide an actual secret laboratory.7 When one curious student asked to visit, Wollaston insisted, “No, you do not go into my laboratory. I bring my laboratory to you.”8 Away from prying eyes, no one knew that he whiled away the hours conducting clandestine chemical reactions that produced pure profit.9
It also helped that Tennant and Wollaston effectively snatched up any and all crude platina for sale in England over the next two decades. All told, Wollaston produced 38,000 ounces of platinum ingots — enough to fill a generously sized bathtub — and for every pound invested, the partners made 6,000 pounds in return.
With such exclusive control over the substance, Wollaston did more than make money hand over fist. He was also uniquely equipped to perform scientific experiments that were out of reach for anyone else. If any other chemist could somehow scrape together an ounce or two of platinum, they’d use it all attempting to learn how to refine platinum ore — and get a slice of that pie for themselves.10
But Wollaston could afford to burn off a few ounces here and there on advanced experimentation. One day in 1802, while playing around with platinum residue and a little mercury cyanide, he uncovered a minute sample of a new “simple metal” — element 46.11
In the same way that ruthenium nearly got the name vestium, after the asteroid Vesta, Wallaston was inspired by astronomy. Ceres was the most recently discovered heavenly body — also an asteroid — so he nearly dubbed the element “ceresium.” But on March 28, 1802, Heinrich Olbers discovered Pallas, another enormous asteroid. Wishing to stay current, Wallaston named his new discovery “palladium” instead.
At this point, Wollaston felt a little more conflicted than your average chemical pioneer: He didn’t want to publish his landmark discovery out of a fear that it would expose his secret business dealings, but he still wanted to let the scientific community know what he had found. Whether this was out of a sense of scientific responsibility or a desire to get all the credit is hard to say.
Regardless, he decided upon a rather unorthodox solution for this conundrum. Wollaston printed up dozens of copies of a handbill, announcing in large letters: “PALLADIUM; or, NEW SILVER, a NEW NOBLE METAL. It is sold only by Mr. FORSTER at No. 26 GERRARD STREET, SOHO, LONDON,” along with eight bullet points describing palladium’s chemical properties. Critically, what was not included on this flyer was Wollaston’s name — it was completely anonymous.
London’s intellectual elite were considerably intrigued by this audacious act. Maybe they would have ignored it entirely, except that anyone could purchase a few grains of the new substance at Mr. Forster’s shop and verify the claims for themselves. (Provided, of course, that they were willing to pay a price six times higher than gold. Wollaston’s capabilities as a businessman at least matched his talents as a scientist.)
The idea was that someone else would back up his claims, informing the world that there was a new element in town, but would be unable to claim that discovery as their own. Perhaps in the future, once sufficiently enriched, Wollaston would shed light on his little ruse, and ensure his place in scientific history.
That’s not exactly how it went down.
All this hullabaloo caught the skeptical eye of one Richard Chenevix, an Irish chemist who loved a good battle of wits. He was sure that this was nothing more than some huckster’s stunt, and he was out to prove it. In The Proceedings Of The Royal Society Of London, Chenevix wrote that “the manner in which this object was presented to the public appeared suspicious,” and while the sample purchased did indeed possess the proclaimed qualities, it was in fact nothing more than a simple alloy of platinum and mercury. He even took a moment to chide his unknown challenger, saying his “chemical language and phrases sound more like alchemy,” and maybe that person was “a hair dresser at Islington.”12 His rebuttal was confident, definitive, and entirely wrong.
Presumably, upon reading this, Wollaston must have pursed his lips in annoyance. He couldn’t refute Chenevix’s findings without outing himself — so he found another creative solution.
He penned another anonymous missive. In this one, published in A Journal Of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry And The Arts, he offered a prize of twenty pounds for anyone who could synthesize palladium as an alloy of other metals, like Chenevix suggested.13 Again — twenty pounds might sound like walking-around money to us, but in 1802, that was the equivalent of five thousand pounds today.
The whole thing sounds remarkably similar to the cat-and-mouse game that played out in the newspaper between the Bonnot Gang and the French police we heard in Episode 35, albeit with much lower stakes.
Many chemists we’ve met before tossed their hats in the ring: Louis Vauquelin, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, Humphry Davy, and many more. None succeeded.
Begrudgingly, Wollaston finally attached his name to a scientific paper in 1805. He played coy about how he sourced his platinum, and the Royal Society of London didn’t appreciate his shenanigans, but no one could argue with his results — now that he was finally showing his work.
All that, and no one ever found out about his underground platinum refinery. He carried on for the rest of his life, becoming a substantially wealthy man and making further acclaimed scientific discoveries. As for his rival? In his book Periodic Tales, Hugh Aldersey-Williams provides this postscript: “Chenevix, disheartened by the episode, renounced science, married a French countess, and turned to writing historical dramas.”
Such a tale makes it sound like transgressions of scientific protocol are no big deal, and might be worth the risk if a big enough payday can be had. I would be remiss to continue this episode without dispelling that idea — and coincidentally, there happens to be another palladium story that highlights the importance of rigorous experimentation, honest communication, and peer review.
Palladium acts much like its platinum group neighbors, and is used in many similar applications. However, there is one property palladium has that none of its elemental siblings share: It can act like a very effective sponge for hydrogen gas. A chunk of the pure metal can soak up an amount of H2 equal to nine hundred times its own volume.
This quality has intrigued many scientists over the years, but none more famously than the duo of Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons at the University of Utah in 1989.
The two arranged an experiment in which a piece of pure palladium metal would be infused with hydrogen — but not just garden-variety hydrogen. They were using deuterium. That’s just a heavier isotope of hydrogen that possesses a neutron in addition to its one proton and one electron. What they found was that their palladium got amazingly hot, far hotter than anyone would have predicted.
Now, that’s quite interesting, a result that would surely capture the fascination of any scientist. But like Wollaston, these two followed up with a decidedly unconventional move: Fleischmann and Pons convened a press conference, where they declared that they had solved the world’s energy problems by inventing cold fusion.
Cold fusion has long been a white whale, holy grail of physics. We’ve discussed fusion plenty of times before — that’s when atoms are smashed together, forming larger elements and releasing incredible amounts of energy. It’s a phenomenon that we’ve observed happening in the hearts of stars and it’s the fuel that powers a thermonuclear bomb. Those are two environments that, you may have noticed, are rather warm.
For decades, physicists have wondered if it might be possible to trigger a self-sustaining fusion reaction closer to room temperature, allowing us to harness the power of the sun here on Earth for a practically unlimited supply of clean energy. This kind of nuclear reaction, which would power turbines rather than leveling cities, is what we call cold fusion.
And that’s what Fleischmann and Pons claimed was happening with their deuterium-infused palladium, like so: The palladium was hoovering up heavy hydrogen atoms and packing them together so tightly that they were actually combining to form helium. They said that was why the palladium got so surprisingly hot.
As an aside, this very public affair might have been the inspiration for Iron Man’s palladium-fueled arc reactor. All the best movie science is based on just enough scientific fact to sound plausible if you don’t think too hard.
Anyway, basically everyone raised a skeptical eyebrow at these claims. “How is this happening?” they asked. “How come this doesn’t look like what we’d expect from deuterium fusion?” And most importantly, “Why can’t we replicate your results?”
Fleischmann and Pons scoffed at such frivolous questions. They had no time to bother with doubting Thomases — they were on their way to ask President George H. W. Bush for twenty-five million dollars in research funds.
For what it’s worth, modern consensus is that Fleischmann and Pons were not the charlatans they might appear to be at first glance. Rather, they were two enthusiastic people who found themselves suddenly thrust into the scientific spotlight, and quickly got in over their heads. Fleischmann had actually wanted to publish their results in an obscure physics journal — like any proper scientific finding — but says the University of Utah wanted to claim priority over the discovery before anyone else could attach their name to it. And it was pretty strange that their palladium got so hot — something that’s gone unexplored until recently.
One Stanford professor offered glib criticism of the duo’s carelessness:
Tens of millions of dollars at stake, Dear Brother,
Because some scientist put a thermometer
At one place and not another.”14
The whole debacle was sort of the mirror image of William Hyde Wollaston’s offense: In both cases, scientists had circumvented the traditional process of publication and peer review, but Wollaston had done so to remain anonymous while the University of Utah desperately wanted their name associated with a scientific breakthrough. In both cases, a desire for financial gain outweighed the pursuit of knowledge, and in both cases, reputations suffered because of it.
The field of science is no place to seek out fame and fortune, especially through the fabrication of convenient fictions. That is an enterprise best left to the realms of film and theater.
Coincidentally, several renowned theaters around the world bear the name, “The Palladium.” From London to Los Angeles, St. Louis to St. Petersburg (Florida), plenty of cities boast a stage that shares a name with element 46. They’re often storied locations that have proudly hosted historic performances by legendary artists.
That’s true of The Palladium in New York City, as well, but it’s the only such venue to have lived a life as raucous as the performers who graced its stage.
The building began life in 1927 as a magnificent, three thousand-seat movie palace on the corner of 14th Street and Irving Place on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Back then, it was called “The Academy of Music,” taking its name from a venerable opera house across the street that had just been demolished the year before.
It served as a cinema for several years, but by the 1960s, the times, they were a-changin’. The location was increasingly used as a concert venue for rock bands. In 1976, Ron Delsener took the place over, providing its new, elemental name and a fresh coat of paint. Acclaimed New York Times art critic John Rockwell was present for the rechristening, and in that Monday’s edition of the paper, he commented on the many improvements made by the new management:
The place used to be called the Academy of Music, and despite its dimly perceived associations as the one‐time center of classical music in this city, the name lad long since come to mean the sleaziest, tackiest hall in town.
… Some unregenerate populists professed to like the old Academy, in that its raunch remained true to the grimier spirit of rock‐and‐roll.
But just because a revolutionary stereotype may be a filthy bomb‐thrower doesn’t mean that one can equate filth with revolution; this observer found the old Acadenly a foul sinkhole, and welcomes Mr. Delsener’s improvements.
The changes were nowhere better symbolized than in the men’s room. “Boy, this place has changed,” said one punk on Saturday. “Yeah,” answered his friend. “It used to be dynamite.”
They weren’t talking about the music. They were talking about the fact that the Academy men’s room used to be the biggest drug den in town, full of teen‐agers openly selling and imbibing more kinds of drugs than most people know exist.
On Saturday Mr. Delsener had two uniformed security guards loitering conspicuously in the men’s room. No matter that, when asked by this reporter, one said they had just been told to stand there. The effect was the same: drugselling was next to nonexistent.”15
While some dazed teenagers may have complained that rock-and-roll demanded a grimier spirit, the overhaul certainly didn’t dissuade enormous acts from taking the limelight. The band known as The Band performed on that first night, and the stage later hosted The Ramones, Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Iron Maiden, Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Clash, Kiss, and hundreds of other bands that were just as huge. The Palladium earned a reputation every bit as illustrious as venues like L’Amour and CBGB.
In 1985, the building underwent another transformation. It remained a music venue, but it also became a nightclub. This conversion was conducted by the people who formerly owned the grand-daddy of all nightclubs: Studio 54. It became a mainstay of New York’s lively club scene through the ’80s and ’90s, and its walls were adorned with murals by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. With every iteration, from movie palace to concert hall to dance club, The Palladium only ever earned greater prestige.16
And then, like all the rowdiest parties, it abruptly came to an end.
New York University purchased the building in 1997, and they weren’t interested in holding concerts. The building was swiftly and unceremoniously demolished. Where The Palladium once stood, the school constructed a residence hall for urban campus’s burgeoning undergraduate population.
Yet clearly someone within NYU’s administration is a little sentimental, because the building was officially named Palladium Residence Hall. Perhaps its current inhabitants might salute the decades-long rager started by their grandparents before they turn on the spigot, pour the beer and swig it, and gaudeamus igit-ur.
You might be fortunate enough to live in Palladium Hall, if you’re a 19-year-old NYU student with a penchant for podcasts about science history, but that doesn’t quite count as adding palladium to your element collection. Fortunately, it’s not terribly difficult to get your hands on a bit.
If you picked up an automobile’s catalytic converter within the last two episodes — legally, I hope — then congratulations, you’ve knocked out three elements in a row. White gold jewelry might contain any of the platinum group metals, too, although it can be a pain to pin down exactly which ones are in your wedding band.
It’s a little easier to verify the palladium content of specialty surgical equipment and dental fillings, since those are objects that wind up inside your body, and there tend to be strict regulations on that kind of thing.
Regardless of where you find your palladium, this is another metal for which you’ll probably need to pay a high price. Better to cough up sooner rather than later, though, because that price will probably go up over time. Just don’t act like Ford Motor Company and get caught up in the speculation game.
By now we’re well aware of how reliant the auto industry is on platinum group metals. Back in 2001, the price of palladium was skyrocketing, and it showed no indication of slowing down. In the prior decade, the price had increased sevenfold, and major global suppliers were subject to turbulent political forces.17
Ford assessed the landscape and decided that the prudent move would be spend a small fortune now to stockpile several years’ worth of palladium, before the price rose to untenable heights.
There’s a certain undeniable logic to this approach, but for some reason, the people in charge did not consult their financial experts before making this critical decision. The threatened political disaster never struck, and auto companies invented more efficient ways to use less palladium in production. In less than a year, the market price of palladium fell by more than half. Ford had to admit to their shareholders and the public that their ill-informed bet had cost the company more than one billion dollars.18
We’ve learned a lot by studying palladium, but its most memorable lesson might be, “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. I’d like to especially thank Mr. John Rockwell for giving a reading of his New York Palladium review just for inclusion in this podcast.
If you haven’t visited the blog in a while, some exciting things have been happening: Tarot cards based on the periodic table, poems inspired by chemistry, and show notes for every episode.
To see all that and more, visit episodic table dot com. Today’s show notes are available at slash P d.
Next time, we’ll see a snapshot of silver.
Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that today’s stories put a different spin on the old adage, “Publish or perish.”
- The Science On…, Palladium Toxicity In Iron Man 2. K.E. Stiefel, September 28, 2017.
- The 1702 Chair Of Chemistry At Cambridge: Transformation And Change, p.123-126. Edited by Mary D. Archer and Christopher D. Haley, 2005.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, William Hyde Wollaston. Melvyn C. Usselman, last updated August 2, 2019.
- The Platinum Metals Review, Merchandising Malleable Platinum. M. C. Usselman, 1989.
- Pure Intelligence: The Life Of William Hyde Wollaston, p. 50-51. Melvyn C. Usselman, 2015.
- Annals Of Science, Export And Smuggling Of Spanish Platina In The Eighteenth Century. Luis Fermín Capitán Vallvey, 1996.
- Pure Intelligence: The Life Of William Hyde Wollaston, p. 99-100, 196. Melvyn C. Usselman, 2015.
- ibid., p. 340.
- The Platinum Metals Review, The Platinum Notebooks Of William Hyde Wollaston. Melvyn C. Usselman, 1978.
- Lateral Science, Wollaston’s Discovery Of A Controversial Element – Palladium. February 28, 2018.
- Encyclopedia.com, William Hyde Wollaston.
- Rock Legends: The Asteroids And Their Discoverers, p. 44. Paul Murdin, 2016.
- A Journal Of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry And The Arts, p. 75, December 16, 1803.
- The New York Times, Physicists Debunk Claim Of A New Kind Of Fusion. Malcolm W. Browne, May 3, 1989.
- The New York Times, Refurbished 14th St. Palladium Opens With Program By The Band. John Rockwell, September 20, 1976.
- The New York Daily News, A Close Look At Palladium, CBGB, And Other Once-Hot New York City Nightclubs That Were Forced To Shutter Their Doors. Dan Gunderman, October 29, 2016.
- BBC News, Ford Fears First Loss In A Decade. January 16, 2002.
- The New York Times, Ford Lost $5.4 Billion In 2001 After Charge For Revamping. Danny Hakim, January 18, 2002.