The (very brief) rise and fall of carolinium

There are but 118 known chemical elements, pure chemical substances each consisting of one type of atom distinguished by its atomic number. They range from common elements such as hydrogen and helium to synthetic elements such as curium and californium.

For a brief time at the beginning of the last century, the Carolinas appeared to be on the verge of having an element of its own.

Carolinium was the proposed name for a new chemical element that American chemist Charles Baskerville believed he had isolated from the already known element thorium.

Working at the University of North Carolina, Baskerville experimented with thorium and in 1901 reported having separated it into three fractions with slightly different chemical properties: the known thorium and two new elements, carolinium (which was given the symbol Cn) and berzelium, according to Wikipedia.

As the name implies, Baskerville named the first proposed element after the state in which he was conducting his experiments, North Carolina. (A 1904 New York Times’ profile of Baskerville, a former University of North Carolina football star, can be found here.)

The other element was named after Jöns Jakob Berzelius a renowned Swedish chemist and discoverer of the elements silicon, selenium, cerium and thorium.

However, in 1905, R.J. Meyer and A. Gumperz failed to replicate the results and demonstrated that thorium is only one element, rather than a mixture.

Thus, Carolinium disappeared forever into that nebulous realm known as “misidentified chemical elements,” along with other all-but-forgotten fictitious elements as helvetium, austrium and bohemium.

Baskerville, born in 1870 in Mississippi, moved from UNC to the City College of New York in 1904 and remained there until his death from pneumonia in 1922 at age 51.

Interestingly, author H. G. Wells‘ 1914 novel The World Set Free features an atomic bomb that employs an element named “Carolinium.” When detonated, the bomb continues to slowly detonate for days on end.

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