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MIKE KEELER: There Never Was an Age of Brass

Mike Keeler

When the ancients first started digging in the ground, they collected shiny metals like Copper and Gold, and learned that these could be melted and formed into different shapes. Next they discovered – surely by accident – that if you included other stuff in the melting process, the resulting mixture would still be shiny and golden, but in some ways better than the original metal alone.

Around 3000 BC, in what is now Turkey, folks realized that there was another metal, Tin – which looks like a weird shiny rock – and that if you melted ugly Tin and pretty Copper together, you would magically create a new metal that was as shiny as Copper but much harder. This alloy is called Bronze, and it would be used to create durable tools, weapons, household items, and all kinds of useful things. The production of Bronze and the spread of the Bronze trade to Europe and the Middle East was part of an unparalleled burst of human development, from 3000 BC to about 500 BC. It is now referred to as the Bronze Age, which supplanted the previous Stone Age and would end when folks learned how to make Iron.

Throughout this period, different batches of Bronze might go all funny. Smelting techniques were pretty crude, and sometimes different ingredients would get into the melty mix, creating results that were often worse, but sometimes better. For example, there was a fairly rare thing that looks kinda like pink glass, and if a little of THAT was added to a smelting it would create a variant that was as shiny and tough as Bronze, but that was a little easier to work with. So it was perfect for making precise instruments, screws, and detailed coins.

This cousin of Bronze is called Brass. And the magic ingredient that you need to make it is Zinc. Unfortunately, Zinc doesn’t exist much as a metal, and is more often found as powdery Zinc Oxide (which today you’ll see on a baby’s bottom or a lifeguard’s nose), or as Zincite, that pink glass the ancients found. In any form, Zinc is also pretty rare, so the capacity for making Brass was limited for a very long time. Think of it this way: when the Greeks went to war with the Trojans, they were protected by Bronze armor and shields, they wielded Bronze swords, and they fought with spears with Bronze points. But probably the only Brass they had was the coins in their pockets.

The Romans were pretty good at making Brass, but after the fall of the Empire Brass-making declined and didn’t recover until the Middle Ages. Even then Brass was expensive and limited to items that needed to be made precisely, such as religious artwork, candlesticks, and coins. But the capacity to make it slowly grew and improved, so by the 1700’s Brass was the preferred metal for making scientific instruments, gears and clocks, pipes, knobs and hinges and screws, and musical instruments.

From the Industrial Revolution onward, it became standardized and available around the world, but was still limited to specific applications. Here in America, Brass production was long limited to the Naugatuck Valley in CT, home of Waterbury, which is still known as the Brass City.

Mike Keeler

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