Molybdenum, Tungsten, and Big Bertha

Some very interesting Insight into the world of war profiteering, and the world of limited natural resources

In today’s excerpt – molybdenum and tungsten. A key German advantage in World War I was Big Bertha, a forty-three ton gun which could fire a 16-inch, 2,200 pound shell nine miles. However, after a few days of firing, the twenty-two foot steel barrel would be useless since the iron in steel has a low melting point. The solution? Molybdenum from America in World War I and tungsten from supposedly neutral Portugal in World War II:


“The famous Krupp armament company found a recipe for strengthening steel: spiking it with molybdenum. Molybdenum … could withstand the excessive heat because it melts at 4,750°F, thousands of degrees hotter than iron, the main metal in steel.


“Back in the trenches, the Germans were soon blazing away at the French and British with a second generation of ‘moly steel’ guns. But Germany soon faced another huge Bertha setback – it had no supply of molybdenum and risked running out. In fact, the only known supplier was a bankrupt, nearly abandoned mine on Bartlett Mountain in Colorado.

“[One world war later], Nazi Germany coveted tungsten for making machinery and armor-piercing missiles, and its lust for [it] surpassed even its lust for looted gold, which Nazi officials happily bartered for tungsten. And who were the Nazis’ trading partners? … It was supposedly neutral Portugal whose tungsten fed the wolfish appetite of the German kriegwerks. …


“Proving his worth as a former professor of economics, [Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio] Salazar leveraged his country’s near monopoly on the metal (90 percent of Europe’s supply) into profits 1,000 percent greater than peacetime levels. …

” Salazar …  played the Axis and Allies brilliantly with vague promises, secret pacts, and stalling tactics that kept the tungsten trains chugging. He had increased the price of his country’s one commodity from $1,100 per ton in 1940 to $20,000 in 1941, and he’d banked $170 million in three frenzied years of speculation. Only after running out of excuses did Salazar institute a full tungsten embargo against the Nazis on June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, by which point the Allied commanders were too preoccupied (and disgusted) to punish him. I believe it was Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind who said that fortunes can be made only during the building up or tearing down of an empire, and Salazar certainly subscribed to that theory. In the so-called wolfram war, the Portuguese dictator had the last lycanthropic laugh.”
Author: Sam Kean   
Title: The Disappearing Spoon
Publisher: Back Bay
Date: Copyright 2010 by Sam Kean
Pages: 91-94

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

by Sam Kean by Little, Brown and Company

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Published in: on August 21, 2011 at 1:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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