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  • Writer's pictureSarah Hijmans

The Short History of (the Element) Jargonium

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

The name Jargonium might seem completely made-up to most people: it is a play on words with the complicated jargon used in many scientific articles and the -ium ending of many elements' names. However, it once existed as more than just a blog about chemistry: for a few months during the mid-nineteenth century, jargonium was actually thought to be a chemical element.

Many new elements that were discovered during the nineteenth century were first identified in mineral samples from all over the world. In 1859, the discovery of spectroscopy made the analysis of such minerals a lot more efficient. This new method was not only much simpler than the long and tedious procedures used before then, it was also so sensitive that even trace amounts of unknown elements could be detected.

Nevertheless, even experts could not always tell the difference between the presence of impurities and that of an unknown element, and some of the new elements that were discovered using spectroscopy turned out to be impure samples of known substances. One of these false discoveries was the element Jargonium.

In March 1869, Henry Clifton Sorby (1826-1908) announced to the Royal Society of London that he had found a new element in a sample of the mineral jargonite from a mine in Ceylon (current-day Sri Lanka). As a young geologist, Sorby had developed two methods of microscopy for the study of minerals. Using the ‘spectrum microscope’ he invented, he studied jargonite and found his element, which he named jargonium after the mineral.

Fig. 1 & 2 - The spectral bands of jargonia (jargonium oxide) at two different temperatures, from Sorby’s 1869 publication When he heard of Sorby’s announcement, Albert Herbert Church (1834-1915) immediately sent a letter to The Chemical News in London. He had already published the hypothesis that a new element might exist in jargonite in 1866, and he was still working on his experiments when Sorby announced the discovery of jargonium. Even though his paper was not yet ready for publication, he felt confident enough to claim priority over the discovery: after all, he had been the first to predict the existence of a new element in jargonite, and he had observed very similar spectral bands. He proposed to name the new element nigrium instead.

Sorby quickly responded, and completely disagreed with Church. He explained he had been unaware of Church's work, and he had made his discovery independently - besides, even though they had observed the same spectrum, Church had done so "in a very imperfect manner". Sorby therefore thought he deserved all the credit for the discovery, which included the honour of naming the element.

The dispute between Sorby and Church carried on until late 1869, when the Polytechnic Association of the American Institute decided that both discoverers should equally be recognized for their independent work on the element, which would be called ‘jargonium'. However, this decision only lasted a few months: in February 1870, Sorby realized he had made some mistakes in his analysis. The spectropic and chemical properties that he had interpreted as those of a new element were actually the properties of zirconium oxide mixed with uranium! He immediately retracted his discovery, and jargonium was no longer seen as an element.

You might think - why would any good scientist publish their results before making sure that they are exact? Why would any journal allow the publication of mistakes? Well, just as it is today, scientific publication in the nineteenth century was a complex process which involved a lot of social and political factors, besides ‘purely’ scientific considerations. The editor of The Chemical News, William Crookes (1832-1919), allowed Sorby and Church to publish their results in his magazine as they were still working on them. He was always willing to fuel controversy in his magazine, and a priority dispute made for some interesting reading!

As for Sorby and Church, they published their results knowing that the discovery of a new element could establish their reputation within the scientific community. Only a few years earlier, Crookes himself had been elected to the Royal Society of London based on a single scientific achievement: the discovery of thallium, an element which he had not isolated before publishing his results. If he had been more cautious, Crookes might not have won the priority dispute over thallium. Ambitious young scientists needed to attach their name to an element before anyone else could discover it - even if this meant that they might have to retract their publications later.

Further Reading:

Church and Sorby’s letters are published in The Chemical News of 12/03/1869, pp. 121-3.

Sorby’s publication “On Jargonium, a New Elementary Substance Associated with Zirconium” can be found in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 17 (1868 - 1869), pp. 511-515.

The story of jargonium, as well as other stories of false discoveries, are told in The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table’s Shadow Side (Oxford University Press, 2015) by M. Fontani, M. Costa and M. V. Orna.

Frank A. J. L. James’ article “The Practical Problems of 'New' Experimental Science: Spectro-Chemistry and the Search for Hitherto Unknown Chemical Elements in Britain 1860-1869” tells the story of Jargonium, thallium and other priority disputes in the context of the acceptance of spectroscopy in Britain. In The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jun., 1988), pp.181-194

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