Copper has made vital contributions to sustaining and improving society since the dawn of civilisation, from the most basic tools of the Copper Age almost 10,000 years ago, through to the Large Hadron Collider, as can be seen in the timeline poster below.
One of the reasons copper is so important is that it can be made into alloys. That means it can be combined with other metals to make new alloys, such as brass and bronze. These are harder, stronger and more corrosion-resistant than pure copper.
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The first copper objects were decorative, because copper is attractive and easy to shape. For example, earrings, rings, brooches, bracelets, combs and mirrors have been discovered from the ancient civilisations of China, India, Peru and Rome. They display a high level of craftsmanship and artistic skill. These sorts of articles are still being made today and sold in markets all over the world.
Some early civilisations realised that bronze could be melted easily and cast into shapes. Furthermore, it could be hardened by working the metal. So they began to use it in new applications: axes, knives, chisels and bowls. These were much more effective than their clay or stone counterparts, which were brittle and more fragile.
Valuable copper and bronze articles were traded across the world for cloth, furs and food. This led to an improvement in living standards.
In Britain, the Bronze Age started in about 2000 BC. Copper and tin were mined in Cornwall and Wales. At one time, Britain was the biggest producer of tin in the world, supplying those countries which had copper, but no tin, to make bronze.
More modern times
Much later, copper and zinc were alloyed to make brass. This found many uses as Britain developed into a major industrial country. From the 20th century, it is copper's electrical properties that have dominated its uses. 60% of copper is used in electrical and electronic goods.
High voltage copper cables supply electricity to millions of homes and businesses around the world. This machine spins cable from thinner strands of copper wire. (Courtesy of Prysmian.)
A typical 3-core power cable used in electricity distribution. (Courtesy of Brugg.)