On free trade in tungsten

This is rather fun:

In 1910 the British journalist Norman Angell published a book called “The Great Illusion”. It\’s thesis was that the integration of the European economy, and by implication the global economy too, had become so all-embracing and irreversible that future wars were all but impossible. The book perfectly captured the zeitgeist of its time and fast became a best seller.

I can\’t point to a source for what follows but I\’ve been told it often enough that I\’m sure it\’s true.

You pretty much always find a little bit of tungsten in tin ores. And a bit of tin in tungsten ores. And back a century tungsten was really only used for light bulbs and the military.

The centre of the world\’s tungsten industry was the German/Czech border. Cornwall was very important for tin. No one bothered to extract the tungsten from the Cornish tin: it sat there in the slags. Until, in the 1905-1912 period, the Germans/Czechs bought all the slags up and shipped them off to be processed for the tungsten.

Excellent free trade, division of labour and specialisation in action. As Angell says.

But that tungsten was then used to build the military that refuted the thesis……

29 thoughts on “On free trade in tungsten”

  1. I don’t doubt a word of this story but before tanks became commonplace, what was the main military purpose for tungsten?

    And there was no demand for tungsten in machine tools which is the main use these days?

    Tim adds: Naval armour I think was the main use…..

  2. So Much For Subtlety – “Tim adds: Naval armour I think was the main use…..”

    Tungsten is brittle. Are you sure it would make good armour? Even naval armour.

  3. “Tungsten is brittle.” I dare say, but it’s surely tungsten steel that would be used in armour?

    Tim adds: So I think. Although will admit to not knowing absolutely everything about such metals…..

  4. “That explains why RN shells bounced off German ships while German shells wrought havoc upon the Grand Fleet.”
    The British shells were substandard, the fire from the battleships was accurate but many shells broke up on impact. Shells were accepted in batches of 100. To pass acceptance a shell was chosen at random and test fired. If it passed the batch was accepted. If it failed another shell was picked at random an test fired. If it passed the batch was accepted. British naval shell production was not too hot prior to Jutland.

  5. Tungsten beads are used in flies (as in fishing, Jr Hartley and all that) to provide weight. Less toxic and heavier than lead. I doubt that’s what the Germans/Czechs were buying it for.

    Just to show that I know one use of one of Tim’s beloved odd metals.

  6. A big app is casting. If you put steel in molten Al it will be gone in hours put W in and it won’t have changed weight after a week. I doubt this was done back then as making a die from it is a bitch even with todays technology.

  7. “But that tungsten was then used to build the military that refuted the thesis……”

    Leaving aside what tungsten was actually used for, it’s worth considering the two key points raised by this sentence:

    1) An elipsis only has three dots in it.
    2) Arguably, the thesis referred to – that intra-European war was now a really, really stupid idea – has not been disproven, but rather the opposite, by the ‘War to End All Wars’.

    We tend to think of the First and Second World Wars as being closely linked, largely due to the timing. To an extent there were links, but it’s more true to say that the Second World War was a largely unrelated anomaly which just happened to occur not long after the First. The Great War did indeed signal an end to wars of empire between Western powers. That it happened was a function of jingoistic, bombastic fools refusing to accept the truth without killing millions, but the lesson was learnt, and there hasn’t been another similar war since.

  8. I’m sorry Dave, you’ve lost me.

    How was the lesson learnt when it was followed 21 years later by a largely unrelated anomaly where jingoistic fools killed millions?

    Oh and ellipsis has two Ls…

  9. Poor Norman, misunderstood and ridiculed for a hundred years.

    “Personally, not only do I regard war as possible, but extremely likely,” he wrote in 1913. “What I have been preaching in Germany is that it is impossible for Germany to benefit by war, especially war against us; and that, of course, is quite a different matter.”

    Dude’s core thesis was spot-on. WWI was pretty ruinous for everyone involved.

  10. Nope. The armour was, of itself, fine. It was just in the wrong places on the battle cruisers.

    This is true, Jacky Fisher favoured fast, hard hitting battle cruisers and that demanded some sacrifices in armour.

    Oh, and poor drills in not securing the magazines.

    It was worse than that, the German ships had designed in flash prevention (double doors, seals in elevators, that sort of stuff) to stop a turret fire from spreading to the magazine. The British ships didn’t. This was the underlying flaw that triggered Beatty’s famous comment “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today” (i.e. they were blowing up). He didn’t know it at the time, but there really was something wrong with them.

    Going further OT, I’ve always been amazed at just how much punishment the big battleships could take take and still float and fight. The Bismarck was scuttled, even after being slowed down and pounded for hours by the RN. It’s an awful thing to think (especially for the people involved) but sometimes I wonder how Jutland would have gone if they fought it out. Scheer was outnumbered and got tactically outmaneuvered, but the German ships really were better.

    I’m very much on the side of the school that says Jellicoe did exactly the right thing in not immediately pursuing the German fleet though. They had to win to break out – he only had to force a draw to keep them contained. If Beatty had been in charge…

  11. Dude’s core thesis was spot-on. WWI was pretty ruinous for everyone involved.

    Also very true. WWII at least had belligerents with a strategic goal and a genuine underlying disagreement in how the world should be run. WWI was a complete and utter fucking waste of time, blood, and treasure.

  12. Mr Potarto>

    “How was the lesson learnt when it was followed 21 years later by a largely unrelated anomaly where jingoistic fools killed millions?”

    Generally we look at the two as closely linked – World War One, and the sequel, World War Two: Return of the Germans. In fact, they were completely different types of war. The first was a massive clash between hegemonies with similar motives for going to war, whereas the latter was a fight against an evil warlord/dictator/maniac. Except the schoolbook stuff about how the Treaty of Versailles led to the conditions which allowed Hitler to seize power in Germany, there’s not much link between the two wars at all. It certainly wasn’t just a German attempt at a rematch.

    Treating the Second World War as something of an anomaly, and differentiating between relatively minor wars like the Falklands, Korea, and so-on (and the more major proxy war in Vietnam) and the intra-European wars of the pre-20th century which culminated in the Great War, it is notable that there has not been a repeat for very nearly a century now.

    “Oh and ellipsis has two Ls…”

    Muphry’s Law in action again.

  13. James James – “Tungsten is extremely hard. Usually used for the tips of armour-piercing bullets/shells.”

    Only because Greenies don’t like uranium. But this is of course why I said before tanks. The Navies of WW1 seemed to rely more on bigger and bigger shells rather than denser and denser penetrators. Which is reasonable as their ships were large and getting larger. An anti-tank gun should be small. A tank gun often has to be small. At least as small as you can make it. So you need to think of something clever. Hence tungsten being used in WW2.

    7 dearieme – “I dare say, but it’s surely tungsten steel that would be used in armour?”

    But would it? I claim no great knowledge but I can’t for the life of me remember anyone doing so.

    Little tungsten factoid – even at the height of the Cultural Revolution and the Cold War, America and China still did trade in tungsten as China was a major producer. Before Pearl Harbour, the Germans even built long range planes to fly to China to bring it back.

  14. SMFS>

    “Only because Greenies don’t like uranium.”

    Not just greenies. If we don’t allow various other weapons – mustard gas, phosphorus, for example – to be used in war, there’s a good argument for adding DU munitions to the list. Nothing to do with daft radiation scares; just that uranium causes heavy metal poisoning if ingested.

  15. So Much For Subtlety

    Dave

    Come on Dave, admit it, you’re just trolling aren’t you?

    “Not just greenies. If we don’t allow various other weapons – mustard gas, phosphorus, for example – to be used in war, there’s a good argument for adding DU munitions to the list. Nothing to do with daft radiation scares; just that uranium causes heavy metal poisoning if ingested.”

    Uranium cases heavy metal poisoning if ingested? So does Lead. We had better ban that too then. Good thing the Army would never fire a projectile made of lead at anyone.

    And I don ‘t suspect tungsten is particularly good for your health if ingested either.

    Although I am willing to bet that the vast majority of people shot at with DU rounds would take eating a little over the experience any day of the week.

  16. So Much For Subtlety

    Dave – “That it happened was a function of jingoistic, bombastic fools refusing to accept the truth without killing millions, but the lesson was learnt, and there hasn’t been another similar war since.”

    Actually that it happened at all was due to the idiocy of allowing democracy to seep into the world of warfare. Had war been kept an affair of gentlemen, it would have all been over by Christmas, everyone would have shook hands and then gone home. The Germans with a slice of the Low Countries perhaps. We would all have been much better off.

    But alas the politicians decided to allow the middle class to take over. They incited the proles into insensate hatred. And the rest is history.

    If war has not happened again it is because the middle class incited the Russian proles a lot more and created an even worse system in Russia. So we all had to hang together or we would be invaded and hanged separately. And they invented the atomic bomb. No more.

    The tragedy of the 20th century is due to the Germans losing WW1.

  17. SMFS>

    Not trolling in the slightest, DU munitions are nasty things. Apart from the contamination – hint for you, lead is soft and doesn’t shatter into dust the way DU is supposed to – the way they work is pretty horrible. The whole point of DU is that it shatters and burns on contact with air, as well as being very dense and so good at penetrating. War is nasty whichever way you do it, but DU munitions are quite plausibly turning out to be one of those things we Just Don’t Do, just like using mustard gas.

    And yes, tungsten is also very carcinogenic. Probably shouldn’t use tungsten-heavy alloys in weapons either, if we’re going down that road.

    “Although I am willing to bet that the vast majority of people shot at with DU rounds would take eating a little over the experience any day of the week.”

    Just thought I’d point out that the LD50 for U is given as about 15mg/kg, so the amount of the stuff in a typical DU slug would be enough to kill you outright were it all absorbed by your body.

  18. “The tragedy of the 20th century is due to the Germans losing WW1.”

    Oh, I don’t know. The interesting counter-factual speculation someone raised recently was what would have happened had the Weimar Republic been bailed-out the way the PIGS have been recently – presumably by the British Empire. An Anglo-German alliance could have had interesting consequences.

    Aside from that, I think there’s a strong argument that the sheer bloody pointlessness of the Great War was a major factor in the rise of the idea that we negotiate with other countries rather than fighting them; that we don’t go to war when we have any other acceptable option. That was the only thing we could do to give some point to the whole mess.

  19. So Much For Subtlety

    Dave – “Not trolling in the slightest, DU munitions are nasty things. Apart from the contamination – hint for you, lead is soft and doesn’t shatter into dust the way DU is supposed to – the way they work is pretty horrible. The whole point of DU is that it shatters and burns on contact with air, as well as being very dense and so good at penetrating.”

    No, the whole point of DU is that it is heavy and dense. That in the right circumstances it will also burn is a bonus but not really the point. A lot of things will, but we tend not to use them much. Aluminium for instance. Nor am I sure that lead would behave in any other way – that is, assuming it would penetrate anything. Hot metal tends to burn.

    “War is nasty whichever way you do it, but DU munitions are quite plausibly turning out to be one of those things we Just Don’t Do, just like using mustard gas.”

    Only if you listen to the Greenies. In reality almost nothing works as well – tungsten alloys tend to be even worse.

    “And yes, tungsten is also very carcinogenic. Probably shouldn’t use tungsten-heavy alloys in weapons either, if we’re going down that road.”

    Good news for the Soviet Union, if only they were around to hear it. That means we would be reduced to shape charges. Which are usually lined with copper or iron. Guess what? Both will burn if they puncture a tank.

    “Just thought I’d point out that the LD50 for U is given as about 15mg/kg, so the amount of the stuff in a typical DU slug would be enough to kill you outright were it all absorbed by your body.”

    If. It is such an interesting word. The LD50 for being on the wrong end of a Warthog firing is hard to quantify. But as I said, most people would probably choose to eat some of the metal.

    23 Dave – “Oh, I don’t know. The interesting counter-factual speculation someone raised recently was what would have happened had the Weimar Republic been bailed-out the way the PIGS have been recently – presumably by the British Empire. An Anglo-German alliance could have had interesting consequences.”

    It would not matter. The Russian Revolution had already taken place and a more bloody set of events than WW2 had already begun. The only way to have a positive outcome is to keep Lenin in Switzerland.

    As for negotiation, all WW1 taught us was the joys of appeasement. Sure, Churchill had a go at one single example of that, but it has been standard British practice ever since. Not working out well for us is it?

  20. Ltw, sorry but incorrect. The British Battlecruisers had perfectly adequate flash prevention devices, but they were not used properly.

    One of the major problems that the British Fleet had in WW1 was accuracy. The admiralty was presented with two competing proposals for a new mechanism to direct the fire of its ships, one by an outsider (Arthur Pollen) was well constructed and was mathematically “correct” in that it took as far as was feasible all the relevant factors into account. the other was by a Naval insider (Commander Dreyer) and used a series of not terribly clever approximations (I paraphrase the issues!). Naturally the Admiralty chose the naval solution and fitted that to all its major ships with one exception, the Battlecruiser Queen Mary was fitted with the alternative device as part of a trial.

    The upshot of this was that except under ideal conditions, the shooting accuracy of British capital ships was generally much poorer than the German, and the Battlecruisers were the worst of the lot because where they were based early on also did not have easy access to a suitable firing range. Later they were rotated through Scapa so they could conduct more training in that area. The result of the poor accuracy (and the Admiralty seemed oblivious to the director table issues) was a particular emphasis on firing speed. In order to fire as fast as possible, all the anti-flash doors and other precautions were very often kept open, making the ships very prone to catastrophic explosions if hit in the wrong place.

    Interestingly it is possible that British design placed too little emphasis on protection of secondary armament magazines and also those magazines seemed to have been placed too close to (or not isolated enough from) the main magazines. At least two of the battlecruiser losses (Queen Mary, and in WW2 Hood) were lost to secondary magazines being penetrated and the subsequent explosion connecting to and detonating either the main magazine or the main propellant stores.

    The point about mentioning the Queen Mary is that with the superior director table equipment she was significantly the most accurate Battlecruiser, and hit the German Battlecruiser more often than the others, but was also the first sunk at Jutland. Note that the Battleships did not have the foolish emphasis on speed and so were in not just better armoured but better defended against the flash down from hits. Warspite for example survived over 30 hits from 11″ shells at Jutland and although quite damaged, wasn’t threatened with a secondary explosion.

    Final Jutland trivia, the Battlecruiser New Zealand, one of the oldest major ships present, was both the least damaged battlecruiser (zero major hits), and also the least accurate, an estimated 3 hits (on battlecruisers) from over 400 shots. The luck was ascribed to the Captain’s wearing of a tiki and pin-piu (grass or flax skirt) presented to the ship by a Maori elder or priest when it first visited NZ. The elder predicted that as long as the captain wore it the ship would not be hit and he was right. However the captain at the time of Jutland, Jimmy Green was a portly fellow and couldn’t wear the piu-piu properly but had to sort of drape it partly around him. Ships tradition however demanded that he wore it.

    End of long and probably boring post on Jutland.

  21. Not boring at all. Also worth mentioning that German ships early in the war did have the same design fault that allowed flash from a gunhouse hit to penetrate the magazine. This fault was identified after German losses at the battle of the Dogger Bank and rectified, whereas the fault didn’t become apparent to the Grand Fleet until Jutland.

  22. This “the wars were different” argument seems rubbish to me. Both wars were about Germany invading Russia. Both wars involved Germany first securing her western flank by invading France.

    Bloody near identical, except for the Jew-slaughtering bit.

  23. Ed, not boring at all. British shooting accuracy was indeed woeful in WWI, and yes the example of the Hood is instructive. I don’t know how far I agree with you that the flash prevention devices were adequate but that the emphasis on fast firing to make up for lack of accuracy led to them not being used. As Peter S. points out, Germany did make changes after Dogger Bank to limit the potential damage and it served them well. Maybe that was in drill or maybe in technical changes, you may be right (I am an amateur). Either way, the German navy emphasised survivability whereas the RN preferred speed and maneuverability (in battlecruisers before you argue, more below), hence the lack of adequate deck armour and the less than ideal magazine placement.

    Of course, it wasn’t enough. Britain still only had to play for the draw, and they did so successfully.

    Warspite for example survived over 30 hits from 11? shells at Jutland and although quite damaged, wasn’t threatened with a secondary explosion.

    Yep, this is the sort of thing I was alluding to before. These things could take an incredible amount of punishment. Yes, my understanding is that the battleships were different. That was sort of the point, tactical doctrine was for the battlecruisers to locate the enemy fleet and draw them in to the massed guns of the battleships. Right or wrong, the differences in design were intentional.

    Mr Potarto, Robert K. Massie’s “Castles of Steel” is a good starter on WWI naval history.
    http://www.amazon.com/Castles-Steel-Britain-Germany-Winning/dp/0345408780/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348411908&sr=8-1&keywords=castles+of+steel

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