How did we build this civilization, with all of its complex machinery, from the primeval wilderness of stones and forests? That’s where it all started, after all, with rocks and sticks. Everything you see around you, all the tools and instruments, all the buildings and bridges and cars, everything we’ve conjured to keep us safe, and productive, and comfortable, and powerful, from the tiniest circuits of the smartphone to biggest beams of the skyscraper, was once no more than the mineral of the earth and the wood of the forest. What was the key that enabled us to unlock so many new technological forms and functions?
Our distant ancestors began shaping the world by using the stones they found lying upon the ground. Big heavy stones to crush, thin sharp stones to cut. For thousands of generations, simple stone tools like hand axes and hammers did give us an advantage that no claw or tooth or muscle could match. But the advantage was always slim, and the bulk of our environment was unyielding to our will. The stone age armament, however sophisticated, would never elevate us above the daily struggle for survival. We could shape individual stones, but we could not yet shape the wilderness. For the key that would help us access real material control over our fate was sealed within the stones themselves. To unlock the potential of civilization, we had to burn the wood of the forest to heat the rocks of the earth, and smelt out the metal within them.
The technological transition from the Stone Age to the age of metals marks the historical arrival of civilization as we know it. For hundreds of thousands of years, human society endured at a very small scale, suffering very little progress or growth from one millennium to the next. But once we learned to work with metals starting around six thousand years ago, everything began to change. The first empires rose, the first governments formed, the first institutions of public education and professional specialization spread, and the first systems of writing to organize all of it emerged. At the heart of the great city-states that supported this upwelling of human potential were the metal tools that shaped it and the metal weapons that secured it. And, thenceforth, from the furnaces where those metals were forged flowed a succession of new technologies that would propel humanity ever onward, through the Bronze Age and the Iron Age to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. To get this great machinery of civilization moving in the first place required a level of tenacity and skill that would challenge even the best of today’s engineers. Indeed, mastering the metals with which we built the modern world represents a historical triumph that dwarfs many contemporary challenges. It’s a triumph not without consequence of course; ripping metals from the earth tends to injure it, a fact with which we have only recently come to terms. Still, by virtue of the sheer ubiquity of metal around us today, we tend to take its benefits for granted and focus only on those environmental consequences, forgetting the extent to which mined metals have helped to liberate us from the brutal and monotonous vicissitudes of nature that shortened and immiserated countless stone age lives. So, how was it that people of that age first learned to see stone not as a tool in itself but as a reservoir of even better tools? And how did we go on to master that material revolution to forge cars and computers from sticks and stones?
I give you mastering metals, and how it began.