Copper was the first metal used by man in any quantity. The earliest workers in copper soon found that it could be easily hammered into sheets and the sheets in turn worked into shapes which became more complex as their skill increased. After the introduction of bronze, a wide range of castings also became possible. Many of the illustrations on this site serve to show man's progress as a metal-worker, culminating in the priceless inheritance of the Renaissance craftsmen. But copper and its principal alloys, bronze and brass, have always been more than a means of decorative embellishment. Although iron became the basic metal of every Western civilization from Rome onwards it was the copper metals which were used when a combination of strength and durability was required. The ability to resist corrosion ensured that copper, bronze and brass remained as functional as well as decorative materials during the Middle Ages and the successive centuries through the Industrial Revolution and on to the present day.
Watt's steam engines, which ushered in the modern world, depended largely on iron and coal, with copper and its alloys making a lesser yet significant contribution, but with the subsequent development of electrical power copper proved to be the metal par excellence. The early decades of the 19th Century saw the foundation of the Electrical Age and thereafter the demand for copper increased tremendously. Britain was the major producer for much of the 19th Century but new mines were opened up in U.S.A., Chile, and later in Africa, until in 1911 the world's output of smelted copper for the first time exceeded a million tons per annum. With the increase in all branches of human activity which followed the Industrial Revolution new important uses were found for copper and advances in metallurgical knowledge led to the introduction of many new copper alloys.
Today more than 5 million tons of copper are produced annually and the copper metals are playing an increasingly vital part in many branches of modern technology. The ductility of copper, which led to its use for water piping in ancient Egypt, is illustrated by the countless thousands of miles of copper tube in contemporary plumbing and heating systems: the corrosion resistance of copper, which induced the Romans to use it for sheathing the roof of the Pantheon, is today verified by the thousands of copper roofs on modern buildings large and small; and the electrical conductivity of copper, which was utilized by Michael Faraday in his epoch-making experiments, remains the key to modern power generation.
These are but three of the examples outlined on this site where present applications are indissolubly linked with the past, but copper is also an essential material of the future. Solar heating, large-scale desalination of water, the linear motor are all innovations where copper will make an increasingly important contribution. The known reserves of copper ore are ample for all envisaged requirements, and continuous metallurgical research promises to provide new alloys possessing even superior properties to meet the exacting demands of the technology of the 21st Century.