The First Uses of Metals
For most of human existence, people used tools of stone, wood and bone. Primitive tribes were familiar with gold which occurs uncombined in nature, but it istoo soft to be useful for anything but jewellery anddecoration.About 5,000 years ago, in the Middle East, somepeople accidentally discovered that if certain rockswere roasted by fire, small amounts of copper would be found later in the ashes. Copper is toosoft to be really useful, but there was a brief “Copper Age” around the eastern end of theMediterranean Sea. Copper was used for decoration, jewellery, small utensils, andoccasionally for knives and spear points.The big breakthrough was the discovery by thesecopper-using people that if they roasted copper-bearing rocks (ores) with tin ores, the resulting“alloy” (mixture) of copper and tin produced amuch harder metal, “bronze”, which could be castin moulds, and hammered to shape many usefultools and weapons.
The Bronze Age
(approx 4,500 to 2,500 years ago)
It is no accident that the rise of the greatancient civilizations occurred about thistime. The stone blocks of the pyramids andtemples of ancient Egypt were cut and shapedwith bronze chisels. Egyptians, and later Greeks, dominated their world because their soldiers were armed with bronze swords,spears and arrowheads.
With bronze tools they built better ships and wagons for transport and trade, which brought wealth and power.Sad as it might be, thefacts of human historyare that progress hasbeen marked by conflict,war and conquest, andmetals have been a vitalpart of that development.Metal has manyadvantages over stone,wood, or bone:• metal is harder, stronger, and flexible, not brittle.• metal can be cast, hammered or drawn into shapes notpossible in stone, such as saw blades, swords and armour.• when tools become blunt, metal can be re-sharpened.Basically, a warrior with a bronze sword always beats a blokewith a stone axe... we call that progress!
The Iron Age
(approx. 2,500 to 1,500 years ago)
About 1,000 B.C. the extraction of iron from its oreswas discovered. This requires much higher temperatures, and the breakthrough was probably theinvention of the bellows, a device to pump air into afurnace so the wood or charcoal burns hotter.Iron is stronger and harder than bronze. Awarrior armed with iron weapons will usually beat a bronze-armed man. Iron tools and even the humble nailallowed new developments in buildings, ships,wagons... remember that towns, trade and commercegive wealth and power. An iron plough allows moreland to be cultivated to grow more food, to feed abigger army... and so on.It is no accident that the dominant world power of thistime was ancient Rome, because their technologywas based on iron.
From the Medieval to the Modern
After the collapse of the Roman Empire the variouscultures that dominated the “Dark Ages” still had iron-based technologies.The next great technological change was the“Industrial Revolution” which began about 1750 inEngland. This had many aspects, but the big changein technology was the use of coal (instead of wood) for fuel. As well as steam engines, coal allowed for largescale smelting of iron and the invention of steel(analloy of iron with carbon).The engines, tools and machinery of the greatfactories were based on steel. Transport wasrevolutionised by steel locomotives running on steelrails. Steel ships replaced wooden ones, and steelweapons (machine guns,tanks and artillery) achievednew heights (depths?)in warfare and massdestruction.In the 20th century, new metalsand alloys became available... aluminium, titanium,chromium, and many more.This was made possible by electricity