National Geographic : 1937 Sep
PLATINUM IN THE WORLD'S WORK BY LONNELLE DAVISON IF YOU were to ask a bride what her platinum wedding ring has in common with armament races, she probably would stare at you in bewilderment. Yet the same metal that goes into her marital badge also is an important element in the manufacture of munitions. It serves the armament maker in fine fuse wire for torpedoes and shells; indirectly, it acts as chemical agent in the production of nitric and sulphuric acids, used together in mak ing explosives. A seldom-told tale of the World War concerns the dangerous and difficult mis sion of a young American engineer in Russia, who, just before the United States entered the conflict in 1917, undertook to transport nearly a ton of platinum from Petrograd (now Leningrad) to Washington. Crossing the Atlantic was too uncertain. So, armed with a courier's pass, he set out, with his boxes of treasure, marked "Em bassy documents," to make the long trek across Siberia to Vladivostok and thence over the Pacific. With travel complicated by the Russian Revolution, he outwitted secret agents and bandit raids. Time and again he met peril, delay, and disappointment as he rode in trains jammed with fretting, sweating hu manity. But the platinum came through! Because of its versatility, platinum "is all things to all people." Unseen, it may do duty for the housewife as a contact point in her telephone (page 348). In a gleaming necklace it may compliment the throat of a theatrical star. The chemist, melting substances at high temperatures in a platinum crucible, finds still other uses for the metal-as do doctors, dentists, photographers, and inventors. It even de scribes a type of Hollywood blonde! WHEN PLATINUM WAS COINED Several nations have considered platinum coinage, made patterns and trial pieces, and then abandoned the scheme. Russia, in 1828, encouraged by rich plat inum discoveries in the Ural Mountains, issued three-, six- and twelve-ruble pieces, amounting to some $3,500,000 (page 357). Then, because platinum's resistance to melting made it hard to mint, and, more im portant, because of fluctuation in its com modity price, the practice was discontinued. Yet, valuable as platinum is now consid ered, its practical career has been brief. "Unripe gold," Colombian Indians once called it. Prospecting for gold, they used to toss white grains of platinum back into the rivers-"to ripen" into the yellow metal! In Tsarist Russia, over a century ago, a silversmith was hanged because he sub stituted platinum for silver. A JUVENILE AMONG PRECIOUS METALS People now living can remember when platinum jewelry was a novelty. Long before platinum was used in legitimate coinage, this metal was circulated as money-but gilded and in counterfeit of gold. "Throw it into the sea. Bury it," fumed the Spanish Government when racketeers of the day began palming off the new white substance from South America for good gold doubloons. "I have even seen United States gold pieces counterfeited in platinum," said a coin collector. Crude platinum ingots, too, were sold for gold in early times. Counterfeiters oper ating in a certain South American port were hanged from the yardarms of their own ship when Dutch buyers learned of their trickery. Indeed, so lightly regarded was the metal that it was discarded as waste in gold refining, although later there often was strenuous effort to get it back. At Quibdo, Colombia, for example, men literally mined their town for platinum lost in gold-recovery processes. The Govern ment hired laborers to dig the streets, and householders worked their own property. One man destroyed his entire house, find ing enough precious metal to buy a new one, with a small fortune to boot. Only recently, therefore, has platinum come into wide use. In verse and fiction it is the gold rush or silver bonanza that grips imagination. Few realize that plati num, too, lures men to drag tropical rivers and thaw frozen northlands, and, still more provocative, to conjure it, genielike, out of intricate chemical processes. True, 2,000 years ago, Ecuadorian chief tains wore nose rings and rude, shining spangles of this metal.