niobium / columbium

Niobium, element 41, is named for Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus in Greek mythology. The element was discovered by German chemist Heinrich Rose in 1844. Rose discovered the element in tantalite ores and chose the name niobium to reflect the relationship with the element tantalum. Rose wrote in the Chemical Gazette in 1845:

It is the oxide of a metal which differs from all known metals. I have called it Niobium, and its acid niobic acid, from Niobe, daughter of Tantalus.1

Niobium has the chemical symbol Nb.

But Rose was not the first to discover the metal and his rediscovery and naming generated a controversy. The element had been previously identified by British chemist Charles Hatchett in ores from Massachusetts. Hatchett named the element columbium after Columbia, the poetical name for America, and assigned it the symbol Cb. Hatchett wrote in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1801:

A Metal hitherto unknown [...] Having consulted with several of the [...] chemists of this country, I have been induced to give it the name of Columbium.2

Columbium was the preferred name for the element in North America until 1950, when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially adopted niobium as the name for the element. One can still find references to columbium, however, particularly from North American sources.


1Oxford English Dictionary, niobium, 3rd Edition, September 2009, Oxford University Press, accessed 27 September 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/00324949.

2Oxford English Dictionary, columbium, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 27 September 2009, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50044446

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