Charles Hatchett FRS (1765 – 1847) was a wealthy London coachbuilder, an amateur scientist and the discoverer of niobium.
In addition to working in his father’s coach business, Charles Hatchett was a distinguished chemist and he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1797. Carrying out analytical research on a great number of minerals and ores in his personal research laboratory with his own library, he discovered niobium when analysing a mineral sample from the British Museum in 1801. This sample had originally emanated from North America and therefore Hatchett named his newly discovered element columbium (Cb) in honour of Columbus who discovered North America.
This element, atomic number 41, is now known as niobium (Nb) although the name columbium still persists in some parts of the world.
This dichotomy between the two names columbium and niobium arose because of the intense activity in the analysis and discovery of new elements in the early part of the nineteenth century.
51 new elements, more than half of the stable elements in the periodic table, were discovered during this period and niobium was the first of these.
In 1802, the year after Hatchett’s discovery of columbium, the Swedish chemist Anders Ekberg discovered the element tantalum (Ta) naming it after Tantalus the mythical King of Phrygia to whom all things were elusive and ‘tantalising’. In 1844 the German chemist Heinrich Rose rediscovered element number 41 calling it niobium (Nb) due to its similarity in terms of chemical properties to tantalum. Niobe ‘the goddess of tears’ was the daughter of Tantalus and hence the name niobium was chosen by Rose. At the time Rose did not realise that columbium and niobium were the same element and it was not until 1866 that Jean-Charles de Marignac showed that columbium and niobium were identical.
In 1949 at the Fifteenth International Union of Physics and Chemistry Congress, niobium was declared to be the official name for element atomic number 41.