A Fast, Fascinating History of Metals like Gold and Silver

How can we say that metals have a history? After all, they have always been around, right? But that’s not exactly true. In fact, only a handful of metals have “always been here” because they are found in their pure state in nature. All other metals were discovered, then refined or smelted, by people over the past thousands of years. So metals really do have a history.

We owe thanks to Allen W. Cramb, a metallurgist who has created a fascinating history of metals and posted it online. You really should read it for yourself. For today’s post on the Specialty Metals Refiners and Smelters blog, we’ve taken the liberty of offering this quick summary of Prof. Cramb’s history of the discovery or development of metals.

Shown: the golden funerary mask of King Tut, which Specialty Metals, one of America's best gold refiners, would never recycle and refine! We turn scrap, not treasure, into profits.

Shown: the golden funerary mask of King Tut, which Specialty Metals, one of America's best gold refiners, would never recycle and refine! We turn scrap, not treasure, into profits.

Gold, about 6000 B.C.

Stone-Age man found gold in its pure state in nature and began to fashion it into jewelry and ornaments. 

Copper, about 4200 B.C.

Early Egyptians and other early civilized people found copper deposits, recognized the metal’s malleability and usefulness, and started to use it in implements, weapons, and jewelry.

Silver, about 4000 B.C.

Silver – also found in nature in small quantities – was used in jewelry and gold alloys. But silver use surged in about 2,500 B.C., when early metallurgists found ways to smelt it from minerals through the application of heat. 

Lead, about 3500 B.C.

Lead is rarely found in nature – most often it must be extracted from ores. Unaware of its poisonous nature, early Egyptians used it to create metallic-looking makeup. At about the same time, Romans began to make lead pipes for plumbing. 

Tin, about 1750 B.C.

Tin is not found in nature but in about 1800 B.C., tin smelting became common in Asia.  

Iron, about 1500 B.C.

In the earliest days, iron was found only in meteors and was rarely used.  But by about 1200 B.C., smelting iron from minerals had become common and iron was used in a variety of implements and weapons.

Mercury, about 750 B.C.

Mercury, also called quicksilver, has been found in tombs dating back to about 1600 B.C. By about 750 B.C., it came to be widely used in plating technologies and as an addition to gold and silver alloys.

Cadmium, 1817 A.D.

Cadmium was first extracted from zinc carbonate by a metallurgist named Friedrich Stroymeyer.

Aluminum, 1825 A.D.

This now-common metal, not found in its pure state in nature, was first smelted by a scientist named Christian Oersted in 1825. Twenty years later August Wöhler, another scientist, began to produce the metal in significant quantities. 

Beryllium, 1828 A.D.

Wöhler extracted beryllium by using potassium to reduce beryllium chloride in a crucible.

Chromium, 1859 A.D.

Wöhler was there at the birth of yet another metal. According to Allen W. Cramb, Wöhler did it by “melting chromium chloride under a fused salt layer and attracted the chromium with zinc.”

If you’re a gold or silver refiner or work with metals in other ways, today’s post could be something you want to print out and post by your desk as a reference. Who said that the history of metals is dull? Not us! It’s as bright and fascinating as precious metals themselves.

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