The Wonderful World of Tin

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Podcast Transcript

In the ancient world, only seven metals were identified and named: gold, silver, iron, lead, copper, mercury, and tin. 

Tin probably doesn’t rank up there with the other metals in terms of interestingness….or usefulness. Nonetheless, tin was incredibly important to the ancient world and remains incredibly important today. 

In fact, tin is probably playing a role in your life right now, and you don’t even know it.

Learn more about the wonderful world of tin on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

So, yeah. Tin. 

I am aware that tin isn’t the sexiest of metals. It isn’t valuable like silver or gold. It isn’t the basis of industry like iron or electrical distribution like copper. It doesn’t even have the cool ability to be a liquid at room temperature like mercury.

Things that are associated with tin almost always have an aura of mediocrity. Tin cans, tin cups, tin foil, the tin man, neither imply strength or wealth, or speed. 

So, why am I doing an episode on tin? 

By the end of this episode, I hope you’ll have a greater appreciation of this often overlooked metal. 

So what is tin? Looking at it chemically, tin is element number 50 on the periodic table.  It is a silvery metal that has several interesting attributes, including being very soft and easy to cut, it doesn’t corrode, and it has a very low melting point.

It also has the distinction of having more stable isotopes than any other element with ten.

The abbreviation for tin is Sn, which doesn’t make sense in English. It comes from the Latin word for tin which is stannum

The discovery of tin probably happened by accident.  The best bet is that trace amounts of tin probably found their way into other metals, most probably copper. 

Its mixture with copper was the first real big use of tin because tin and copper make an alloy known as bronze. 

Bronze was a huge step forward for human development. In a previous episode, I talked about the bronze age. 

To summarize, bronze was much stronger and more robust than copper. To make bronze, you use approximately 12% tin and the rest copper, however, the exact proportions might change from place to place. 

Bronze was highly valued in the ancient world. Bronze weapons, armor, and tools were very better than copper. 

There was one big problem. In the ancient world, tin was quite rare. The number of tin deposits in the known world was quite small. In particular, Europe had very little in the way of tin.

There was a small deposit in Tuscany which was depleted rather quickly, one in the Iberian peninsula and another one in Germany

Perhaps the largest tin mine was located in southern Turkey. It operated for a thousand years but it had already ceased operation by the year 1800 BC.

Much of the tin used in the Mediterranean was imported from much further away from mines in Afghanistan, India, or East Africa.  

China had significant deposits along the Yellow River, much of it was carried by the river and left in fluvial deposits. 

As the bronze age ended, demand for tin dropped as well. Iron was much stronger, and perhaps more importantly, it was much more abundant. 

To put it into perspective, there are about 50,000 parts per million of iron in the Earth’s crust, whereas there are only about two parts per million of tin in the crust.

With the onset of the iron age, tin became relegated to a minor player in the world of metals, mostly used in the creation of alloys. 

The Romans used an alloy of lead and tin to solder together lead pipes, which were used to carry water. 

One of the other alloys in which tin is used is pewter. 

Pewter wasn’t strategically important like bronze was. It was primarily used for objects like jewelry, dishes, and other decorative items. 

Unlike bronze, tin is the dominant metal in the pewter alloy. Pewter consists of about 85 to 95% tin, with the rest consisting of antimony, copper, and silver.

The earliest samples of pewter that have been found date back around 3500 years ago from ancient Egypt.

There are minor examples of pewter which were found in ancient Rome and throughout the Middle Ages, but it was never a major alloy.

Pewter never really took off until the 18th and 19th centuries.  Pewter was used for dishes and cups in Europe before porcelain became popular. 

Pewter is still used, but again, mostly for decorative items. Some sporting events will give out pewter medals for fourth place.

The resurgence in the importance of tin occurred in the early 19th century. 

Beginning in the 17the century, there began the development of a new product called tinplate. 

Tinplate was originally thin sheets of iron which was coated in tin. The tin coating solved the problem of rust and corrosion. 

Eventually, the iron was replaced with steel which made for an even stronger sheet of metal. 

This led to the breakthrough product, which was developed in 1810: the tin can. 

The tin can was developed by the French inventor Philippe de Girard, who then got the English inventor Peter Durand to patent the idea.  Durand didn’t do anything with the patent and sold it to Bryan Donkin and John Hall, who created the first canning factory in 1812.

The tin cans are actually not made just out of tin. They are mostly steel and just plated in tin to prevent corrosion. 

The tin can was a revolutionary invention. The canning process allowed for the long-term preservation of food that could be stored at room temperature. 

Canning was the first way that many foods could be preserved and shipped long distances without spoiling. 

One of the problems with early tin cans was that a lead-tin alloy was used to solder the can to hold it together. This could result in lead poisoning, and it was eventually replaced with lead-free solder. 

The early tin cans were also very thick. To open a can, you literally had to use a hammer and a knife. 

Over time, the metal used in cans became thinner as manufacturing techniques improved. 

Eventually, the metal became thin enough that the first specialty-designed can opener was developed. It was developed in 1858 by Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut. This was actually huge for the consumption of canned food during the US Civil War.

Continued improvements in can technology resulted in beer in tin cans in 1935. The first canned beer was “Krueger Cream Ale,” sold by the Kruger Brewing Company of Richmond, Virginia.

Beer cans still had to be opened with a can opener until the development of the pop-top can in 1959.

While aluminum has supplanted tin for many uses, especially beverages, the canned industry is still the second biggest consumer of tin today. 

While canning makes use of tin’s non-corrosive quality, another industry makes use of the low melting point of tin. In fact, you might not have even known that tin was involved in its manufacture: glass. 

Modern panes of glass are a type of glass known as float glass. 

Float glass allows for extremely flat panes of glass of uniform thickness. The way it is made is that molten glass is poured onto a thin pool of liquid metal, which is usually tin. 

This technique was first attempted in the mid-19th century, but it was perfected in the 1950s by Sir Alastair Pilkington.  He developed a system whereby a continuous pour of molten glass is poured onto a shallow bath of molten tin. The glass, which is smooth and flat on both sides, flows down the bath until it solidifies. 

It is all possible due to tin.

Another major use of tin developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This use took advantage of tin’s property of being soft and malleable: tin foil. 

Gold was able to be hammered into very thin sheets, but gold was incredibly expensive. 

Tin was much more affordable and could be rolled into very thin sheets as well. 

The problem with tin foil is that it often leaves foods with a rather “tinny” taste. As aluminum costs dropped over the 20th century, tin foil was eventually replaced with the much cheaper aluminum foil. 

Even though the term “tin foil” is still used today, there is very little tin foil that is actually produced. Most everything that is called tin foil is actually aluminum foil.

The final use of tin is the one that uses over half of the world’s tin production, and it is probably involved somehow with you listening to this podcast: soldering. 

Soldering uses low melting point metal alloys to connect two other pieces of metal when it cools.  Its primary use is in electronics, but it is also used in plumbing and jewelry. 

If you have ever done hand soldering, you probably used a metal alloy of approximately 62% tin and 38% lead.

Most commercial solders, and all plumbing solders, have had the lead removed for reasons of lead poisoning, but tin is is still a major component.

Soldering is an important part of the creation of most commercial electronics. 

There are, of course, even more uses for tin. In the course of travleing around the world, I’ve seen countless examples of tin-plated corrugated metal used in construction. 

Tin also has a minor role to play in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, which can probably be found in the device you are listening to in this podcast.

So, I hope you have a better appreciation for boring old tin. I’m sure the folks at the International Tin Association get wild during their conventions swapping war stories about tin, but for most people, it isn’t something that they ever think of. 

Tin has had a role to play in human civilization for thousands of years. It was responsible for the bronze age, food preservation, and our ability to make windows and electronics. 

So even though you might never give it another thought after this episode, take a moment to appreciate good old tin.

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Jeroen De Boer over on Facebook. He writes:

This podcast is amazing in every way. Content, voice, speed, length, everything.

Gary is one of the very few Americans whose knowledge about the Netherlands goes further than tulips (not from Holland), clogs, and cheese. 

As a teacher and traveler, I enjoy great benefits from this podcast. I can broaden children’s minds and outsmart tour guides, especially in Rome.

Keep up the good work, Gary. I’ll try to get everybody in the Netherlands as addicted to this podcast as I am.

Dank u wel, Jeroen! I have had the pleasure of exploring your wonderful yet small country. In addition to Amsterdam I’ve been to Rotterdam, Den Hag, Utrecht, Nijmegen, Arnhem, and even the beemster polder. 

However, I’ve also been to all the other parts of the kingdom of the Netherlands, including Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, St Maarten, St Eustatius, and Saba. I can even say I’ve climbed to the highest point in the Netherlands, which, fun fact, is actually located in the Caribbean

I’m actually part Dutch, and the area where I grew up in Wisconsin has a very large Dutch population. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.