The Story Book of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre

Gold and Iron

"S OME metals never rust; such a one is gold. Ancient gold pieces found in the earth after centuries are as bright as the day they were coined. No dross, no rust covers their effigy and inscription. Time, fire, humidity, air, cannot harm this admirable metal. Therefore gold, on account of its unchangeable luster and its rarity, is preëminently the material for ornaments and coins.

"Furthermore, gold is the first metal that man became acquainted with, long before iron, lead, tin, and the others. The reason why man's attention was called to gold, long centuries before iron, is not hard to understand. Gold never rusts; iron rusts with such grievous facility that in a short time, if we are not careful, it is converted into a red earth. I have just told you that gold objects, however old they may be, have come to us intact, even after having been in the dampest ground. As for objects of iron, not one has reached us that was not in an unrecognizable state. Corroded with rust, they have become a shapeless earthy crust. Now I will ask Jules if the iron ore that is extracted from the bowels of the earth can be real, pure iron, such as we use."

"It seems to me not, Uncle; for if iron at any given moment is pure, it must rust with time and change to earthy matter, as does the blade of a knife buried in the ground."

"My brother seems to reason correctly; I agree with him," said Claire.

"And gold?" Uncle Paul asked her.

"It is different with gold," she replied. "As that metal never rusts, is not changed by time, air, and dampness, it must be pure."

"Exactly so. In the rocks where it is disseminated in small scales, gold is as brilliant as in jewelers' boxes. Claire's earrings have not more luster than the particles set by nature in the rock. On the contrary, what a pitiful appearance iron makes when it is found! It is an earthy crust, a reddish stone, in which only after long research can one suspect the presence of a metal; it is, in fact, rust, mixed more or less with other substances. And then, it is not enough to perceive that this rusty stone contains a metal; a way must still be found to decompose the ore and bring the iron back to its metallic state. How many efforts were necessary to attain this result, one of the most difficult to achieve! How many fruitless attempts, how many painful trials! Iron, then, was the last to become of use to us, long after gold and other metals, like copper and silver, which are sometimes, but not always, found pure. That most useful of metals was the last; but with it an immense advance was made in human industry. From the moment man was in possession of iron, he found himself master of the earth.

"At the head of substances that resist shock, iron must be placed; and it is precisely its enormous resistance to rupture that makes this metal so precious to us. Never would a gold, copper, marble, or stone anvil resist the blows of the smith's hammer as an iron one does. The hammer itself, of what substance other than iron could it be made? If of copper, silver, or gold, it would flatten, crush, and become useless in a short time; for these metals lack hardness. If of stone, it would break at the first rather hard blow. For these implements nothing can take the place of iron. Nor can it for axes, saws, knives, the mason's chisel, the quarry-man's pick, the plowshare, and a number of other implements which cut, hew, pierce, plane, file, give or receive violent blows. Iron alone has the hardness that can cut most other substances, and the resistance that sets blows at defiance. In this respect iron is, of all mineral substances, the handsomest present that Providence has given to man. It is preëminently the material for tools, indispensable in every art and industry."

"Claire and I read one day," said Jules, "that when the Spaniards discovered America, the savages of that new country had gold axes, which they very willingly exchanged for iron ones. I laughed at their innocence, which made them give such a costly price for a piece of very common metal. I think I see now that the exchange was to their advantage."

"Yes, decidedly to their advantage; for with an iron ax they could fell trees to make their dug-out canoes and their huts; they could better defend themselves against wild animals and attack the game in their hunts. This piece of iron gave them an assurance of food, a substantial boat, a warm dwelling, a redoubtable weapon. In comparison, a gold ax was only a useless plaything."

"If iron came last, what did men do before they knew of it?" asked Jules.

"They made their weapons and tools of copper; for, like gold, this metal is sometimes in a pure state so that it can be utilized just as nature gives it to us. But a copper implement, having little hardness, is of much less value than an iron one. Thus, in those far-off days of copper axes, man was indeed a wretched creature.

"He was still more so before knowing copper. He cut a flint into a point, or split it, and fastened it to the end of a stick; and that was his only weapon.


Hatchet of the Stone Age

"With this stone he had to procure food, clothing, a hut, and to defend himself from wild beasts. His clothing was a skin thrown over his back, his dwelling a hut made of twisted branches and mud; his food a piece of flesh, produce of the chase. Domestic animals were unknown, the earth uncultivated, and industry lacking."

"And where was that?" asked Claire.

"Everywhere, my dear child; here, even in places where to-day are our most flourishing towns. Oh! how forlorn man was before attaining, by the help of iron, the well-being that we enjoy to-day; how forlorn was man and what a great present Providence made him in giving him this metal!"

Just as Uncle Paul finished, Jacques knocked discreetly at the door; Jules ran to open it. They whispered a few words to each other. It was about an important affair for the next day.