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Precious Metals Part 2

Precious Metals – Continued

Written for the KidsKnowIt Network by: Brandon Guymon

Copper isn’t very good for making tools. It’s better than stone, but it’s too soft; it will bend if it hits another hard object. Also, because copper is so soft you can’t make big tools out of it. If you want to make big tools you have to use a lot of copper. Using that much copper makes the tool too heavy to use and too expensive to make. Remember, smelting metal is difficult work. To solve the problem of copper being too soft, people learned that if you melt copper and tin and mix them together you make bronze. Scientist and historians call the time period that bronze was used the Bronze Age.

Artwork done in copper

Bronze is much better than copper to work with. For the first time, large tools, including swords and armor, could be made. The ancient Egyptians used a crooked bronze sword called a khopesh. In Europe, the most common type of bronze sword was a long 20 to 35 inches (50 to 90 cm) leaf-shaped blade. China was also making bronze swords during the Bronze Age. The Chinese swords were more complicated than the Mesopotamian and European swords. They used two different harnesses of bronze and more complicated blade shapes.

Examples of ancient bronze sword hilts

There is one main problem with using bronze to make tools. The problem is: finding copper is easy; finding tin is hard. For example, during the Bronze Age in Europe most of the tin was found in the Cornwall region of Great Britain. If you wanted to make bronze you had to trade for the tin. This was true if you were an Egyptian, European, or almost any one else. There are really only two places that we know of that had copper and tin together. So unless you lived in one of those two places, you had to trade for the tin.

Bronze pot  Workers during the Iron Age

Scientists think the supply of tin became scarce. Something happened, they’re not sure what, to disrupt the tin trade routes. It could have been disease, war, or migration. No matter what the cause, a new metal had to be found. The solution was iron. Iron was a little easier to work with and much easier to find. Iron wasn’t as good as bronze but it was good enough and it was cheaper. Eventually people learned how to make iron in a way that it became as good as bronze. Then people learned how to make steel from iron. Steel is much better than iron or bronze.

The use of steel is the foundation of our modern world. Steel is all around you. It makes the nails and screws that hold up houses. Without steel we wouldn’t have skyscrapers and modern cities. Without steel we couldn’t have cars, trucks, buses, trains, planes, or modern ships. Without steel our modern world would be very different.

Steel is all around us

But what about the other metals, do we still use them today? Yes, of course we do. Copper and gold are still used in jewelry. It’s copper wire that brings electricity to your house. Copper and gold form the circuits that allow your computer and other electronics to work. The pins on your computer’s CPU are plated in gold. Most houses have copper water pipes.

Bronze is used in bells, sculptures, Olympic medals, and probably in other places as well. We use metal everywhere. It is in nearly everything we do. You would have to work really hard not to use some kind of metal every day. Look around and see just how much our modern world depends on our precious metal.

We wouldn't be able to travel into space without steel