60 Centuries of Copper

This article appeared in the Grand Haven Tribune in Spring of 2015 written by Mike VerHulst, Exhibits Facilitator at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum

If there is one thing the modern world couldn't live without, that thing wouldn't be oil; it would be electricity.  Electricity is an essential part of our daily lives and it is delivered in many ways.  Solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear power, and burning fossil fuels are all examples of ways electricity is generated.  All of this power is useless unless it can be delivered, and that's where one very important element comes in: copper.

Just about everything that uses electricity relies on copper for one or more aspects of its function.  Copper wires run through the walls of buildings to power the lights and appliances that make our daily lives easier.  An average car has about 50 pounds of copper wiring and larger vehicles, such as SUVs, have about 100 pounds of copper wiring.  Even handheld electronics like smart phones, mp3 players and tablets rely on copper because their circuit boards are etched from copper plates to create paths where the data and power can travel.

Copper has been a very important part of human technology for thousands of years due to its versatility.  The first metal tools made by man were made of copper.  Unlike iron, copper can be shaped easily by simply pounding the metal into the shape you need.  Ancient hammers, fish hooks, arrowheads, and jewelry have been excavated from sites all over the world, including the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Michigan once had a major role in copper production on a global level.  One of the largest deposits of pure, native copper can be found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The Keweenaw Peninsula is known as "Copper Country" and for good reason; untreated copper samples taken from the mines were tested as 97% pure.  The purity of Michigan copper meant that minimal refining was needed before shipping the copper to market.  Purity, along with quantity of copper in the U.P., made Michigan a top producer for decades.  Between the 1840s and 1880s, Michigan accounted for 75% of all copper produced in the U.S.

Copper is not solely used for industrial purposes such as piping and wiring.  For centuries, copper and its primary alloys, brass and bronze, have been used by artists to create beautiful works.  Copper and bronze ornaments have been found in Egypt that date back to roughly 4000 BCE.  Jewelry made out of copper and bronze were often status symbols due to the metal's inherent beauty and value as a raw material.

The Colossus at Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was a bronze statue built in 280 BCE that stood nearly 100 feet tall.  One of the most iconic statues in the world, the Statue of Liberty is made out of copper and is covered in a green patina.  The patina that copper generates is one reason copper and bronze are popular choices for sculpture.  Unlike rust, which will continue spreading until there is no metal left, copper's patina protects the copper from further corrosion.  This makes copper an ideal choice of material for outdoor sculptures.  There are many people that find the patina more attractive than the look of clean copper.

60 Centuries of Copper will be on display at the Akeley building, 200 Washington Ave in downtown Grand Haven starting January 30th.  The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10-5 and Sunday 12-5.  The Museum is closed on Monday.  For more information on exhibits and programs, please call (616) 842-0700 or visit www.tri-citieshistoricalmuseum.org.

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