Joachimsthal Uranium Mine

Connor Hasson
March 25, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Uranium ore in the form of Pechblende from Joachimsthal. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The valley in which Joachimsthal lies was a brutal place to carve out a life and the area was hardly populated at all until around the 13th century. [1] The town, located in the Ore Mountains near the present day German-Czech border, first popped up due to the discovery of silver in the mountains that surround the valley. The silver mines were extremely lucrative with ore concentrations being very high. The coins minted in the town came to be known as "thalers" and were accepted all over Europe. [2] The silver mining continued lucratively for about 50 years until riches from the new world began to make it unprofitable. All that remained soon after the mines closed were piles of a byproduct from the silver mining that the Germans called "pechblende". [1] A strange, shiny black material that impeded the refining of silver ore and was regarded as a nuisance by the miners (Fig. 1).

Discovery of Uranium

Those piles of useless pechblende sat around for decades before the German chemist, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, discovered Uranium (1789) in the byproduct while analyzing mineral samples from the silver mines. [2] The newly found element created another boom in the region, uranium was an excellent for the coloring process of glass and ceramics and demand for it was very high. The production of these coloring agents even became more important than the traditional silver mining industry and the silver processing plant was even converted to a uranium coloring production center. This new production center, called the "Urangelbfabrik" used the pechblende to create nine different glazes that were in great demand across the world. [1] Once again, however, Joachimthal's boom times ended and by the late 19th century, the uranium glazes were unprofitable due to new, synthetic glazes.

Discovery of Radium

Fig. 2: Uranium mine in Joachimsthal. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The fortunes in Joachimsthal and the mines were about to change again, though, with the discovery of radium by the Curies in 1898. [1] They had painstakingly derived their sample of Radium from the pechblende in Joachimsthal and interest in the new element grew rapidly as a possible treatment for cancer. Due to the extremely low concentration in the ore and the difficulty of separation at the time, the price per gram of the material was exorbitant, ranging into the millions in today's dollar figures. [2] The ore needed for the production of Radium could only be gotten from a single place on the planet, Joachimsthal. The town was then thrown into another boom period in the early 20th century being the sole and later main producer of radium on the planet (Fig 2). Smaller mines in Colorado and Portugal produced small amounts of uranium, but not nearly enough to usurp Joachimsthal's near monopoly. The region's domination lasted until the outbreak of the first world war, when new discoveries of Uranium in America and the Congo drove down the price of Radium, causing the mines to operate at a loss. [2]


The First World War coupled with the discovery of more concentrated Uranium deposits ultimately ended the Radium boom period. This would be the last boom in the valley where fortunes had risen and fallen for since the 16th century. Joachimthal would never experience another upswing and for the most part be relegated to the history books. Still, its history is an important one, leading to the discovery of Uranium, as well as Radium. These discoveries changed the course of history.

© Connor Hasson. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J.L. Marshall and V.R. Marshall, "Rediscovery of the Elements: Jáchymov (Joachimsthal), Czech Republic," University of North Texas, The Hexagon, Winter 2008.

[2] F. Veselovský, P. Ondruš and J. Komínek, "History of the Jáchymov (Joachimsthal) Ore District," J. Czech Geolog. Soc. 42, 4 (1997).