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July-August 2011

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Connoisseur's Choice: Tennantite, Tsumeb, Namibia

The sciences of chemistry and mineralogy as we know them today can be said to have begun together in the eighteenth century, a period often called the Age of Enlightenment. The nomenclature of mineralogy is rife with the names of the great chemists of the period—scheelite named for Karl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786), berzelianite after Swedish chemist J. J. Berzelius (1779–1848), and smithsonite for James Smithson (ca. 1765–1829). The chemists of the Age of Enlightenment were searching for the chemical make-up of familiar things, and rocks and minerals were not only familiar but they also happened to be of value. One of the many problems that men of science were trying to solve during this period involved determining the various forms that the element carbon assumed. Of these, diamond proved the most difficult. Although it was determined in 1694 that diamond could be burned, no one was able to say for sure what the composition of diamond was. The great scientists of the Age of Enlightenment—Scheele and Lavoisier among them—labored at this problem to no avail. It was a gentleman scientist and Cambridge chemistry instructor, Smithson Tennant (1761–1815), who determined in 1796 that diamond is composed of carbon. Tennant also worked with platinum ores and discovered two new elements in 1803: iridium and osmium (Emsley 2003). It was this accomplishment that led Sowerby in 1817 to name dodecahedral crystals, which up to that point had been called gray sulphuret of copper, tennantite (Blackburn and Dennen 1997). Another small bit of trivia concerning Tennant is that he knew, and was friends with, James Smithson, the founder of the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, they were gambling companions and were at the gaming houses of Paris just days before Tennant's death in 1815 (Ewing 2007).

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