The history of tungsten goes back to the 17th century. The miners in the Erz Mountains of Saxony noticed that certain ores disturbed the reduction of cassiterite (a tin mineral) and induced slagging. "They tear away the tin and devour it like a wolf devours a sheep", a contemporary wrote in the symbolic language of those times. The miners gave this annoying ore German nicknames like "wolfert" and "wolfrahm" (which means wolf froth).

In 1758, the Swedish chemist and mineralogist, Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, discovered and described an unusually heavy mineral that he called "tung-sten", which is Swedish for heavy stone. He was convinced that this mineral contained a new and, as yet undiscovered, element.

It was not until 1781 that a fellow Swede, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, succeeded in isolating the oxide (tungsten trioxide).

Independent of Scheele, two Spanish chemists, the brothers Elhuyar de Suvisa, first reduced the mineral wolframite to tungsten metal in 1783. Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1816) and later also Friedrich Wöhler (1824) described the oxides and bronzes of tungsten and gave the new metal the name "wolfram". While this established itself in Germany and Scandinavia, the Anglo-Saxon countries preferred Cronstedt’s "tungsten".

In 1821, K.C. von Leonhard proposed the name "Scheelite" for the mineral CaWO4.

The first attempts to produce tungsten steel were made in 1855, but industrial use was not possible because of the high price of tungsten metal.

The first industrial application of tungsten was the alloying and hardening of steels late in the 19th century. Rapid growth and widespread application followed the invention, and the launch of high speed steels by Bethlehem Steel took place in 1900 at the Paris World Exhibition.

The second important breakthrough in tungsten applications was made by W. D. Coolidge in 1903. Coolidge succeeded in preparing a ductile tungsten wire by doping tungsten oxide before reduction. The resulting metal powder was pressed, sintered and forged to thin rods. Very thin wire was then drawn from these rods. This was the beginning of tungsten powder metallurgy, which was instrumental in the rapid development of the lamp industry.

The year 1923 is the next important milestone in the chronology of tungsten. It marks the invention of hardmetal (combining tungsten monocarbide and cobalt by liquid phase sintering).  Today hardmetal is the main application for tungsten.