Collecting elements can be risky business. Tellurium is one of those elements that poses a dire threat — not to one’s health, but to the element collector’s reputation in polite society.
Featured above: Vlad III Dracula. He’s a lot worse than the other Dracula.
Today’s show title comes courtesy of the old-timey folks who knew about Telluride, Colorado’s boisterous reputation, and the kind of people who were attracted to such a place. I can’t help but be reminded of molybdenum’s similar nickname given by its mine workers, “Molly-be-damned.”
I Thought They Smelled Bad On The Outside: The chalcogens — those elements in group 16 — certainly do boast the worst-smelling chemicals on all the periodic table. As we saw with sulfur, these compounds can stink bad enough to evacuate entire towns.
It’s not too surprising that the elements of one group should all share a similar characteristic. That’s the whole conceit behind the periodic table, after all. But there doesn’t appear to be much investigation as to why these chemicals smell so bad.
The best I’ve found is this StackExchange discussion from a few years ago. It’s a lot of conjecture, but it’s educated conjecture, and seems to boil down to this: The leading element of the group, oxygen, is something we depend on. The other elements in this group, especially sulfur, can be quite toxic. (Perhaps because of their similarity to oxygen.) Our bodies, then, would have evolved to tell us to stay far away.
People tend to get delightfully creative with describing these smells. For instance, selenophenol was once described this way: “Imagine 6 skunks wrapped in rubber innertubes and the whole thing is set ablaze. That might approach the metaphysical stench of this material.”
Twistin’ The Wrist That’s Turnin’ The (Telluric) Screw: You might remember, way way back in Episode 0, we discussed Monsieur Alexandre-Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois and his Telluric Screw, one of the predecessors of the periodic table. (Definite points for creative presentation, at least!) Many sources will say that he gave it that name because tellurium appears at its very center.
Well… that’s kind of true, I suppose, but the more plausible theory seems to be that proposed by the Internet Database Of Periodic Tables:
It has been suggested that Chancourtois called his formulation a telluric helix because tellurium is found in the middle. However, most elements are found as there their ‘earths’ – tellus, telluris – or oxides, which for a mineralogist would have been highly significant.”
That makes more sense to me, but since I couldn’t find definitive evidence, I decided to omit the good geologist from the episode entirely.
Talk About Dirty Jobs: Twenty thousand Turkish corpses is more than you’re likely to find on short notice. It seems that Vlad Dracula had been preparing for his presentation for quite some time.
He defending himself in that way most successful when a small force is outclassed by an invading empire: Guerilla warfare. And apparently, it was some unfortunate soul’s job to harvest the bodies afterward, pile them up somewhere, and keep an eye on them until Vlad wished to hoist them high in the sky.
The whole affair was rather grotesque.
For A Moment There I Thought We Were In Trouble: Like Transylvania, Butch Cassidy was not invented for the benefit of a (truly marvelous) story. He was a real man, a rancher, a miner, and a Mormon. In 1889, he was looking for something a little more exciting than all that.
Along with a couple friends, he pulled his first job in Telluride, Colorado. In just a few minutes, the three entered the San Miguel Bank, told the bank’s only teller to hand over the cash, and walked out $20,000 richer. (That’s over half a million bucks in today’s money!)
Sadly, Cassidy’s end was probably far more depressing than the film’s infamous “Bolivian Army Ending.” The available evidence seems to indicate that Cassidy and his partner, Harry “The Sundance Kid” Longabaugh, were mortally wounded in a gunfight. Realizing their fate was sealed, Cassidy provided his friend with a quick death before turning the gun on himself.
Of course, the available evidence is just inconclusive enough to provide a sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe, the bodies found by the authorities belonged to somebody else, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had once more escaped the grip of Johnny Law.
Count Von Count: Most people know about the garlic, the crucifix, and the sunlight, but less well known is the idea that you can keep a vampire away with rice.
The thought here is that vampires have a compulsion to count things, so if you throw a handful of rice (or millet, or poppy seeds, or what have you) in their face, they’ll spend the rest of the night counting.
Crossing a bridge over water (troubled or otherwise) will also keep you out of trouble in some traditions, but be careful: If the vampire can convince someone else to ferry them across the water, that’s fair game.
Hello, listener! Just a quick word to let you know that this episode briefly talks about the career of Vlad the Impaler, and, well, you can imagine what that entrails. Sorry! Entails. If that makes you a bit squeamish, you may wish to skip the parts between 8:00 and 10:00.
Pretty much every notable object in the sky has a corresponding chemical element. As we saw with tin, we’ve been making those kinds of connections since long before there was a periodic table. The alchemists associated iron with Mars, for instance, and helium takes its name from the Greek word for the Sun. Even a couple asteroids were popular enough to get elements named after them: palladium and cerium.
But as society approached the 19th century, Martin Heinrich Klaproth saw that there was one gaping omission in this interdisciplinary arrangement: Earth. It didn’t seem right that the giant ball of elements beneath our feet should be excluded from the periodic table, so when he publicized Franz-Joseph Muller von Reichenstein’s discovery of a “new peculiar metal,” he suggested “the name ‘tellurium,’ borrowed from old Mother Earth.”1 2 Specifically, the Latin word for Earth, tellus.
That’s a nice bit of self-awareness on Klaproth’s part. From the stories we’ll hear today, it seems that tellurium is an element that demands self-awareness of everything from one’s preconceived cultural and scientific notions, to the malodorous smell of one’s breath.
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 maintaining a professional distance from tellurium.
You might expect the element named after the Earth to be easy to find in any old scoop of dirt, but it’s extremely rare here. Most of the tellurium that started out on Earth latched on to hydrogen atoms and floated out into space early in the planet’s history. Ironically, tellurium is quite abundant everywhere else in the universe.3
That’s in keeping with its character, actually. Tellurium seems to be something of a trickster element. For instance: In the earliest days of the periodic table, chemists were ordering the elements by their weight: Hydrogen was lighter than helium, which was lighter than lithium, and so on.
There was a snag, though. Tellurium was observably heavier than iodine, but it needed to come before iodine in the order. Tellurium clearly behaved like selenium, in group sixteen; and iodine clearly behaved like bromine, in group seventeen. Chemists couldn’t order the elements by atomic weight if they were also going to group them by their similar behavior.4
This caused much consternation for Dmitri Mendeleev. His faith in the periodic table could not be shaken, though, so he decided there must be some error with the weights and measures.
He wasn’t exactly right, but he wasn’t quite wrong, either. Scientists were able to assess atomic weights pretty reliably, but they didn’t yet know about subatomic particles.
Weight makes an imperfect metric by which to order the periodic table because of neutrons. Neutrons can add mass to atoms without changing any of their electrical characteristics. Those are isotopes, varieties of an element differentiated by how many neutrons it has. It just so happens that the most common isotope of tellurium carries enough extra neutrons to make it slightly heavier than the most abundant isotope of iodine.
That’s why it makes more sense to order the elements by the number of protons in the nucleus. If that changes, well, you’re suddenly dealing with an entirely different element.
So with all these snarls and snags and cautions and caveats, you can understand why one of tellurium’s earliest nicknames was metallum problematicum.
That’s what Franz-Joseph Muller von Reichenstein called it until he realized that he had discovered a new chemical element. He published his findings, but he published them in a journal so obscure that no one really paid any attention. Martin Klaproth was a pretty notable guy in chemistry circles by this point, so when he mentioned the element in a paper of his own a few years later, he probably could’ve taken the credit for discovery, or at least conveniently omitted Muller’s name, knowing his paper would draw more attention. But Klaproth did the gracious thing and shone a little bit of his spotlight on the lesser-known chemist from Transylvania.5
I feel a certain responsibility to pause here and affirm that Transylvania is a real place. Bram Stoker did not invent it for his genre-defining work of Gothic horror, the 1897 novel Dracula. He chose Transylvania as that story’s setting because, as a region in central Romania, it would feel appropriately foreign to his English-reading audience. That added to the air of mystery so important for the tale’s eponymous undead aristocrat.
Stoker probably found Transylvania “exotic” because despite traveling extensively, he never came within a hundred miles of the place.6 Anything he knew was gathered secondhand from books, letters, and notes written by other people. He was especially intrigued by a single footnote in a single book, which read, “Dracula in the Wallachian language means ‘Devil.'” That convinced him to change his antagonist’s name from “Count Vampyr” to “Count Dracula.”7
Stoker didn’t do much research beyond that, though, so he was completely unaware that he had named his novel’s antagonist after a historical figure with a similarly bloodthirsty reputation. 8
Vlad Dracula was a regional governor of that same region in Romania in the 15th century. He was the son of Vlad Dracul, whose name meant not “Devil,” but “Dragon.” Caught between Hungary to the north and the Ottoman Empire to the South, Dracula spent his life fighting on both fronts. Tensions ran especially high between Vlad and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, whom we last met in our episode on molybdenum when he captured Constantinople with the power of cannonfire.
In 1460, Mehmed encroached upon Wallachian land and marched upon its capital. The experience could not have been more different than his conquest of Constantinople eight years earier. All the doors of this city were open; all the buildings abandoned. A cold wind blew through empty streets. The surrounding fields had been razed and the water poisoned, and covering an area of seven acres were the bodies of twenty thousand Turkish men, women, and children, skewered straight through and held high in the air upon massive wooden spikes. Those who witnessed the scene called it “The Forest of the Dead.”
Mehmed and his army were so sickened by this sight that they turned back around and did not bother to return. Vlad had made his point.
Bram Stoker created a legendary monster who terrifies audiences even today, but Count Dracula pales in comparison to Vlad Dracula the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia.
For one thing, the vampire can easily be kept at bay with a few cloves of garlic — and probably with a minuscule sample of tellurium, too.
Ingesting tellurium, or even holding it in your hand for a quick second, will cause your breath and body odor to reek with a somewhat garlicky smell that is guaranteed to repel vampires — and anyone else who crosses your path, too. The body metabolizes this element into the extremely pungent dimethyl telluride. According to chemist and Reddit user DangerousBill, it’s worse than whatever you’re imagining. He says it “will generate breath so foul that birds will fall from the sky, the city gates will be closed, and new widows will weep.”9
As if that weren’t bad enough, the effect is as long-lasting as it is potent. A five-milligram dose can befoul a person for eight months, or even longer.
Understandably, this has dissuaded some talented chemists who might otherwise have studied element 52. At an event celebrating the life and work of physical chemist Linus Pauling, a former student named Matt Meselson recalled the time Pauling suggested that he might find tellurium’s crystal structure worth investigating:
LP: Well, Matt, you know about tellurium, the group VI element below selenium in the periodic chart of the elements?
Me: Uh, yes. Sulfur, selenium, tellurium …
LP: I know that you know how bad hydrogen sulfide smells. Have you ever smelled hydrogen selenide?
Me: No, I never have.
LP: Well, it smells much worse than hydrogen sulfide.
Me: I see.
LP: Now, hydrogen telluride smells as much worse than hydrogen selenide as hydrogen selenide does compared to hydrogen sulfide.
Me: Ahh …
LP: In fact, Matt, some chemists were not careful when working with tellurium compounds, and they acquired a condition known as “tellurium breath.” As a result, they have become isolated from society. Some have even committed suicide.
LP: But Matt, I’m sure that you would be careful. Why don’t you think it over and let me know if you would like to work on the structure of some tellurium compounds?
I waited a few days. Then I went back and explained that I thought it would do me more good to work out a more biological structure[.]”10
You can hardly blame him.
But in the 19th century, there was a town where people were so desperate to get their hands on tellurium compounds that they tore apart the streets and the buildings — even their own homes.
In 1893, Paddy Hannan, Tom Flanagan, and Dan Shea were surveying a desolate region of Western Australia’s outback, hoping to find gold. They were luckier than they could have hoped.11
While searching for a horse that had wandered off, the three stumbled upon a plot of land where gold nuggets lay on the open ground. They loaded their pockets with over six pounds of pure gold without so much as glancing at a shovel.12
They proceeded to stake their claim. They probably would have preferred not to, but they were legally required to register their find within seven days if they wanted to hold onto it. That’s fine, except that those claims were a matter of public record — and people kept a close eye on the news.
Within three days, four hundred esurient prospectors descended upon Hannan’s Find, and within a week they numbered more than a thousand. Obviously, all the surface-level gold was snatched up first, so those seeking riches soon had to start digging.
Gold was more plentiful than water, and that was the biggest problem. Before long, the most entrepreneurial move wasn’t to search for gold, but to set up shop — literally.
Taverns, inns, brothels, and stores of all kinds began to pop up — and quickly, too. After all, those prospectors had dug up tons of worthless stone in their pursuit of gold, so all the construction materials were right there. Before long, Hannan’s Find turned into a thriving little town called Kalgoorlie.
That was the state of things for a while: Gold was plentiful, but required hard work to unearth. A steady supply kept Kalgoorlie humming with activity.
It was common knowledge at the time that gold is almost always found in its pure state, rarely in combination with other elements. Tellurium provides one of the very few exceptions, mixing with it to create gold telluride.16 17
It just so happened that much of the material around Kalgoorlie was made of that combination. In fact, a lot of the so-called “worthless” rubble that the earlier prospectors had discarded was gold telluride. That was same material the townsfolk had used to pave the streets and build their homes.
Overnight, the town was thrown into a frenzy. Piles of debris disappeared as people picked them over for gold. When those were gone, they tore up the paved-over potholes in the road, and even the walls of their own homes. After all — the renovations would pay for themselves.
That was not the end for Kalgoorlie. Even after the last ounce of gold was drawn from its telluride, the ground all around was still loaded with more to give. Today, one of the largest pit mines in the world pulls gold from the Earth twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. But life has calmed down considerably since the gold rush at Hannan’s Find, and the second rush upon the town itself.18 19
Explorers and fools have long sought for the riches of a “lost city of gold,” or the promise of a land where “the streets are paved with gold.” For a brief moment in time, that was more than a myth, a real place to be found in the barren deserts of Western Australia.20 The irony is that only lasted as long as the residents remained unaware of their valuable surroundings.
You are not likely to find tellurium lining your own walls, so you’ll have to look elsewhere when stocking your element collection.
The Colorado city of Telluride might sound like a natural place to hunt down element 52, and with good reason: It is one of the many American cities named after a chemical element.
Sadly, you will not find any tellurium in Telluride. The town changed its name from Columbia in 1887, because the US Postal Service kept confusing it with Columbia, California. The area’s mines were rich with silver, gold, zinc, copper, and lead, which can all be found alongside tellurium, and telluride minerals can be found elsewhere in Colorado, but this element does not naturally occur in this location. Perhaps local officials just liked the sound.21
It’s not unique in taking its name from the periodic table. Boron, California; Krypton, Kentucky; and Arsenic Tubs, Arizona are just a few of the dozens of such towns dotting the map of North America.22 23However, for over four decades, Telluride has hosted the world’s only major film festival with a name referencing chemistry, albeit rather obliquely.
The sad fact is that tellurium is simply not in very high demand, industrially or commercially. What little amount is desired is harvested as a byproduct of copper refining; specifically, from the slime that forms on anodes during the electrolytic purification process.24 25
There is one way you might find tellurium within arm’s reach: The reflective layer on a rewritable CD contains a small amount of tellurium. It also contains a little silver, indium, and antimony, so your old collection of burned music could fill several empty slots in your elemental inventory.26
Obviously, that will not satisfy the discerning collector, who will need to find some way to isolate a sample from industrially treated steel, or rubber, or glass, which sometimes contains tellurium.
If successful, the result will either look like a silvery metal or a dark brown powder. Just make sure to be very careful at this point, and seal it safely away inside an airtight container. You might have just performed some impressive lab work, but nobody will want to hear about it if they’re fleeing your nauseating aroma.
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn the Telluride tourist who got rich in a matter of minutes, visit Episodic Table dot com slash T e.
As this episode airs on December 30, 2019, the International Year Of The Periodic Table is officially coming to a close. But it’s far from the end for the Episodic Table. We aren’t even halfway through our exploration of the elements yet. More fascinating tales await in 2020, and I can’t wait to share them with you. As always, I’m grateful to have you as a listener.
Next time, we’ll add a little iodine to the program.
Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that if you’re short on garlic, then a holy symbol, a fistful of rice, or a beam of sunlight should work just as well to stave off the bloodsucking dead.
- Elementymology & Elements Multidict, Tellurium. Peter van der Krogt
- Minor Metals Trade Association, Tellurium.
- ScienceDaily, Rare Element, Tellurium, Detected For The First Time In Ancient Stars. February 21, 2012.
- Lente, G. ChemTexts (2019) 5: 17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40828-019-0092-5
- Chemistry LibreTexts, Chemistry Of Tellurium (Z=52). Stephen R. Marsden, June 5, 2019.
- The Essence And The Margin: National Identities And Collective Memories In Contemporary European Culture, p. 93. Edited by Laura Rorato, 2009.
- Dracula And The Gothic In Literature, Pop Culture, And The Arts, p. 46. Edited by Isabel Ermida, 2015.
- Bram Stoker’s Notes For Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, p. 285. Elizabeth Miller, 2013.
- reddit.com/r/chemistry, My Favorite Chemical Warning Label. Comment by DangerousBill, 2013.
- Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Linus Pauling As An Educator. Matthew Meselson, February 28 – March 2, 1995.
- Australian Dictionary Of Biography, Hannan, Patrick (1840-1925). Geoffrey Blainey, 1983.
- Ramblers From Clare And Other Sketches, p. 43-55. John T. McMahon, 1936.
- Mining And Scientific Press, Volume 107, p. 47. Dewey Publishing Company, July 12, 1913.
- The Kalgoorlie Miner, Occurrence And Treatment Of Telluride Of Gold. Erle Huntley, June 2, 1896.
- The Kalgoorlie Miner, Telluride Ores. J. Collett Moulden, June 2, 1896.
- The Metallurgy Of Gold: A Practical Treatise On The Metallurgical Treatment Of Gold-Bearing Ores Including The Assaying, Melting, And Refining Of Gold, p. 26. Manuel Eissler, 1900.
- Mindat.org, Block 45 Gold Mine, Golden Mile Mines, Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Kalgoorlie-Boulder Shire, Western Australia, Australia.
- Mining People International, 10 Fast Facts About Kalgoorlie’s Massive Super Pit. April 11, 2017.
- Institution Of Civil Engineers, Kalgoorlie Super Pit.
- Western Australian Museum, Calaverite (Gold Telluride). 2013.
- Colorado Encyclopedia, Telluride. Griffin Noyer.
- KnowledgeDoor, U.S. Towns Named After Elements. Ordinarily not an authoritative-enough source, but it cites the following: Thomas, Nicholas C. “Connecting Element Names with the Names of U.S. Towns.” Journal of Chemical Education, volume 86, number 2, 2009, pp. 181–184. doi:10.1021/ed086p181
- Arsenic Tubs, AZ can be a little hard to find. It is here.
- Metallurgical And Materials Transactions B, Tellurium Distribution In Copper Anode Slimes Smelting. D. R. Swinbourne, G. G. Barbante, A. Sheeran, June 1998.
- Cooper, W.C. The Treatment Of Copper Refinery Anode Slimes. JOM 42, 45–49 (1990) doi:10.1007/BF03221054
- Encyclopedia.com, CD-RW. December 15, 2019.