|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
GOLD AND IRON
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,"
"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
"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."
of the Stone Age
"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?"
"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.
"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
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