When the town’s shiny silver deposits dwindled, miners began to encounter a mysterious pitch-black substance that led to an alarmingly high incidence of fatal lung diseases. They called the uraninite mineral “Pechblende” (“pech” means “bad luck” in German). While sifting through the town’s mines in 1898, a physicist named Marie Curie identified that the same ore that had produced the first dollars contained two new radioactive elements: radium and polonium. The discovery disfigured Curie’s hands, eventually killed her and led her to become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. But it also set the stage for the town’s unlikely second act: the same mines that coined the world’s currency would now power the nuclear arms race.
Eliot Stein digs into the history of the tiny Czech town of Jáchymov that was recently named one of Unesco’s newest World Heritage sites. He discusses the silver deposits that helped create the first ‘thalors’ some 500 years ago, as well as the radioactive metals that helped fuel the Cold War.