Cobalt is named for the German word “kobold,” or goblin. The association wasn’t innocent. It got the name because cobalt was responsible for the horrible and mysterious deaths of miners.
People have been intentionally using cobalt for six hundred years. The element is a dirty silver color on its own, but when combined with other elements turns a deep and gorgeous blue. Pot-makers, painters, and glass-makers all went crazy for the pigment, but it wasn’t until chemistry came into its own that anyone realized it was its own element.
By that time it had gotten a very bad reputation. Cobalt is relatively rare element, but it can be found in veins underground. Even if it isn’t intentionally mined for itself, it forms combinations with copper and other sought-after materials that are mined. Miners in cobalt-rich areas came to fear something in the mines. They didn’t know exactly what it was. They just knew that, when heated, it filled the mine with a vapor that could kill them. Even those who did escape were sick for weeks, and sometimes had their health permanently ruined.
One of the elements that cobalt combines with is arsenic. A cobalt atom with two arsenic atoms attached is called cobaltite, and a cobalt atom with three arsenic atoms attached is called skutterudite. Neither is a rare combination. So when miners tried to extract a piece of ore by heating it, they’d release arsenic as a gas all around them. They noticed that this was especially common when they were hacking into a substance that looked like copper, but had turned blue, and called the substance “kobold,” or goblin.
In 1735, when Georg Brandt chemically took apart one of those beautifully blue pieces of copper, he found that he had discovered a new metal. This new element was confirmed in 1780 by Torbern Bergman. Since no one felt comfortable just calling an element “evil goblin” the name was modified to cobalt. Still the goblins have made their way into the periodic table.