From basic plumbing to coins to smartphones, copper has been a vital precious metal to humans for centuries.
The important role copper has played in human development can hardly be overstated. Copper is soft, easily manipulated, and conducts heat wonderfully, making it an ideal metal of choice for jewelry, building material, and coinage.
For thousands of years, copper has been sharing its wonderful properties with humans. Continue reading to learn more about copper’s history and its most common modern uses.
Historians are not certain, but copper has been a pivotal part of history for at least the last 11,000 years. It is believed to have first been used around 9000 BCE in the Middle East. Pure copper occurs naturally in nature and it is easily mined, so methods of extracting copper from its ores (smelting) arose early.
Copper’s first wide usage was mostly for ornamentation. This included jewelry, combs, and other items that displayed high levels of craftsmanship and artistry. The early Mesopotamians shared their love of copper with the ancient Egyptians.
Around this time, it was discovered that melted copper could be fashioned and hardened into tools, and the ancient Egyptians made use of this property. They began using copper to make agricultural tools as well as cookware, saws, knives, etc. The Egyptians are also credited with making the first copper alloys. They discovered that copper could be made stronger when it was mixed with tin or other metals. Thus, bronze was born.
The Bronze Age and the Romans
The Egyptians discovered bronze by mixing copper with either arsenic or tin, although tin became preferred due to arsenic’s toxic fumes and tin’s malleability. It is believed that bronze was first produced by the Egyptians around 4,000 BCE and soon spread to other parts of Western Asia and Europe.
Bronze is much harder than copper and less easily manipulated. It can be shaped and hardened fairly easily. When iron smelting became popular, the Bronze Age ended but copper usage certainly did not stop. The Romans began widely importing copper from mines all across their empire and began using the metal for engineering purposes, musical instruments, armor, and weaponry (until iron came along).
Another important use of copper for the Romans was for coinage.
Copper in Coins
Copper, and copper alloys in particular, were used for coinage as early as the 3rd century BCE. Initially, copper lumps were used as coinage, with their value depending on size. However, this soon changed. Coins created from copper alloys became popular and changed depending on which ruler was in power. For example, Julius Caesar preferred his coins to be made from brass (an alloy of copper and zinc), while Octavius Augustus Caesar’s coins were made from a copper-lead-tin alloy.
Copper was the ideal metal for coin-making. Copper and its alloys actively resisted wear and corrosion over time, and they could be manipulated to include detailed works of art on their faces. They were also recyclable.
Since the time of the Ancient Romans, copper has spread throughout the world and its use in coinage is global. In the United States, gold and silver were originally used for coins, but the price of these precious metals became too much. Instead, copper and its alloys took their place. American pennies were originally made from pure copper, and alloys of copper and nickel were used to produce dimes and nickels. The World Wars caused a copper shortage in America, and so the metal was conserved for use in weaponry and ammunition.
Today, many bronze-colored coins are made from copper-plated zinc or steel. This includes the U.S. penny and the United Kingdom’s 1-pound and 2-pound coins.
Modern Copper Uses
From the time of the Romans to today, copper has continued to be used widely. Renaissance artists used copper for sculpting (again, because of its flexibility), and it is still used for that purpose today. America’s most iconic sculpture, the Statue of Liberty, is also derived from copper. Further, copper is used for roofing, photography, and is often placed on the hulls of ships for added protection.
Copper is also highly conductive. While silver has a higher conductivity, its expense is a problem for manufacturers who want to keep material costs low. Copper is cheaper than silver and, while its conductivity was not as high, is most commonly used for electrical equipment.
Copper continues to be an integral part of our modern society. Everything from construction materials to household appliances and your smartphone contain copper. Some of copper’s most common modern uses include the following:
Copper is highly valued for its electrical conductivity, and this is what the majority of copper is used for today. Copper is used widely in generators, transformers, and electrical wiring for numerous devices including computers, cell phones, and automobiles as well as household appliances like microwaves and washing machines.
Copper’s durability and resistance to water make it a top choice for many construction materials and projects, especially those that could come in contact with water. Copper has the ability to inhibit bacterial and viral growth that can take place within water. For this reason, copper is widely used for plumbing pipes, roofs, irrigation systems, etc.
Besides being a vital part of the electronic components of cars and trucks, copper is also used in other ways in the automotive industry. Copper radiators and oil coolers have been part of the industry for a few decades now. Additionally, contact wires for city trams and trolleys are made of copper alloys, and boat propellers are often cast in copper.
Copper Bullion Investment
Copper is used in circulated coins all around the world, but it is also used to create beautiful bullion coin investment pieces. It has only recently joined with silver, gold and platinum for investment status, but its popularity is growing due to its reasonable price.
If you would like to learn more about how to invest in affordable precious metal bullion like copper, check out our Bullion Buying Guide, or browse our inventory of copper coins, rounds, bars and other bullion.