The history of plutonium begins with the discovery of uranium. In the sixteenth century, silver was found in a river in a mountainous region near Saxony in Germany. Because of the silver boom, a town was created for the miners that came to be called Sankt Joachimsthal and several silver mines were opened. While the silver boom ebbed and flowed, mining continued into the eighteenth century. Among other things the miners encountered was a shiny black mineral that they called pechblende—pitch mineral—pitchblende. It was first analyzed by a self-educated chemist named Martin Klaproth, and in 1789, he found in it what he called a “strange kind of half metal” that seemed to be a new element. Klaproth had no way of knowing that what he had discovered was the heaviest naturally occurring element. At first he was going to name it after himself, but on a tentative basis he decided to name it after the planet Uranus, which had been discovered by his countryman William Herschel in 1781. He admired Herschel and to honor him called the element uran, which later became “uranium.”
And, thus begins the tale of the most dangerous element in the world....plutonium.
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