Gold: A Material History

We all know what Gold is. That shiny precious metal that they use for medals in the Olympics. But why is it so precious and why do we use it the way we do?


Tutankhamen from Ancient Egypt 

Gold has been influential in human culture for thousands of years. It is likely the first discovery of Gold by humans was in the form of nuggets on river beds. Gold flakes have been found in Neolithic caves but the first widespread and confirmed use of Gold was in ancient Egypt. Ancient Greeks regarded Gold in a higher respect than the Egyptians because it was a status symbol as well as currency. You would of thought I could point out about gold in ancient Greece by mentioning the start of the Olympics, but to my dismay gold medals for first place is a modern thing!

The first official use of Gold as a currency was in the USA after the Civil war in 1792. Gold was worth about 15 times more than Silver. Various Gold rushes occurred in the 19th century. A few notable ones include: California, Klondike and Australia.

The Bretton Woods agreement after world war 2 pegged the value of Gold to the US dollar. This was a major factor in the USA becoming a world superpower.

Applications and repercussions

Gold coins

At first, humans would simply use Gold as ornaments and as decoration because of its beauty and malleability. However, in more modern times Gold took a very important role as currency and you could argue it changed the world.

Reading the book ‘7 elements that changed the world’ made me realise how powerful Gold was. Using trade fuelled by their use of the Gold ducat allowed the Venetian empire to grow massively.  They served as the hub for trade from East to most of Europe. Venice, the city, grew out of the water because of the huge amount of sea trade they facilitated. Other city hubs tried to emulate this success but the intimate Venetian use of gold exchange rates and trade gave them the advantage. Please read the book for some more great and interesting information


But why is Gold so precious?

This is where the science comes out – there are many physical and chemical reasons for why we love this stuff.

Cool Gold Crystal

First of all, Gold is very dense at about 20g per cm^3. This is why Gold bars are so heavy (12.4kg!) Density of a material is determined by how the structure is arranged and how close the atoms want to get to each other. There are forces that repel atoms from each other and forces that attract them – the distance where these forces find equilibrium in Gold is very small. The arrangement Gold takes is face centred cubic which is one of the densest arrangements you can have. The atomic mass is also fairly high so that increases weight. The reason density is important is that one can easily have a large amount of wealth in a small and manageable area. In times of crisis you can collect all of your wealth and run very easily.

Next, Gold is incredible inert – this means Gold does not erode. Gold doesn’t erode because of its electron arrangement – external elements will not react as there are very little electrons that want to react. An example of an element that does react is Iron; Rust is where oxygen reacts with iron to form iron oxide. The Gold you have in your basement (you wish) will not be rotting/degrading/rusting. This means value is not lost. This is useful because you can plan purchases in the future.

It is very easy to test purity of Gold anywhere. Using acid tests and conductivity tests, people can find out if it really is 24k. If you didnt know what the karat system is, it is just how many parts in 24 are gold and is a percentage. Testing purity is much harder for other forms of currency like diamonds, land or food.

Due to Golds rarity the supply is very stable. Gold is likely to come out of mines at a very steady rate. You cannot just manufacture more Gold, however you can manufacture notes/coins and this can devalue a currency.

Gold is gold is gold is gold. You cant can crude gold or refined gold like you can with oil. There is no funny converting between standards because it is a pure element and is the same everywhere.

Gold doesn’t really have much use in industry – this means there is little demand other than for currency to effect things. Gold is used in semiconductors in industry at only about 100t per year.


I wish I had some Gold… 😦


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