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Having discovered platinum and palladium, William Hyde Wollaston handed over the remaining residues of ore to his commercial partner Smithson Tennant, a fellow Cambridge graduate with whom he had forged a partnership in 1800.
In 1804, Tennant isolated iridium (and osmium) from the residues and, due to its colourful compounds, named it after the Latin for rainbow, "iridis". Much of the credit for the discovery should also go to Frenchmen L.N. Vauquelin, A.F. de Fourcroy and H.V. Collet-Descotiles upon whose research Tennant also acted.
Obtaining pure samples of iridium remained impossible, however, due to its high melting point, until 1842 when an American chemist called Hare used a hydrogen/oxygen flame to melt a small sample, allowing it to be separated from dross and other impurities.
It is still produced today from platinum ore and as a by-product of nickel mining.
Iridium first found a use in the nibs of fountain pens, due to its extreme hardness.
In 1889, in Paris, a platinum-iridium alloy bar was cast as the standard unit length of the metre and remained as the definition for this distance until 1960 when more precise measurement methods replaced it.
Many medical and surgical advances, such as pacemakers have also relied upon iridium's unique qualities.
It is also worth noting that anomalous deposits of iridium can be found throughout the world at the 65 million year old interface between rocks of the cretaceous and tertiary eras. Such concentrations, thousands of times greater than that normally found in the Earth's crust, are believed to have arrived extra-terrestrially. Their presence is held up as evidence by supporters of the theory that a massive asteroid collision with our planet was the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs at that same point in geological time.
However, there are others such as Dewey M. McLean of Virginia Polytechnic Institute who argue that the iridium was of volcanic origin. The Earth's core is rich in iridium, and Piton de la Fournaise on Réunion, for example, is still releasing iridium today.
The Greek goddess Iris is the daughter of Electra. She is considered to be the personification of the rainbow. Iris is pictured as a messenger goddess with winged sandals, similar to her male counterpart Mercury, who is also associated with communication. But the goddess Iris has her own highway. This female courier transports messages between earth to heaven via the iridescent highway of a rainbow. She can travel through air, water and the underworld, from the very fundaments of the earth to the zenith of the heavens. Her task is to be a joiner, uniter and conciliator. There is currently an international satellite-based communications network called Iridium.
In Judeo-Christian mythology, the rainbow is a symbol of God's promise that a flood will never again destroy the world. In Norse mythology it is a bridge of fire, air and water, built by the Gods from earth to heaven. Generally, the symbolism of the rainbow is a meeting of heaven and earth, and a bridge between worlds. In Judaism, Islam and Christianity, it is interesting to note that the angel, being slightly more than human and slightly less than god, is considered both a winged messenger, and a bridge between heaven and earth.
In Scandinavia, the rainbow is guarded over by the God of light, morning, and beginnings. In Rumania and Yugoslavia, the rainbow is associated with change of sex. In Silesia, it is said that angels put gold at the foot of the rainbow, and only a naked man can obtain it. In Chinese mythology, the rainbow is a union between heaven and earth. Rainbow is also used as a term to describe unity, especially unity of many differing types.
After the end of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela talked about South Africa as a rainbow nation, bringing the idea of many colored people together, with ideas of bridges, hope and reconciliation.
A rainbow is a mixture of light and water, a coloured arch caused by refraction and internal reflection of raindrops. It is the display of the usually hidden colors of light that make up the whole, the white light. There are seven of these visible colors. Seven is not insignificant for Iridium -- its atomic weight is 77 and it is the 77th rarest metal on earth. Interestingly, Asteroid number seven is also named after Iris.