Today is a new day for a Worldbuilding article. It takes me several days to produce one of these articles, as I do a lot of research into them, to which I am glad to do. There is a lot of satisfaction when I can bring it all together, and enjoy the feedback, especially on reddit.
Today we discuss Silver. Silver is part of the 7 Metals of Antiquity, which are the known metals of the world until the 1800’s. I plan to cover each of these as they are the most likely metals to show up in your world, especially for fantasy writers.
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When we think of precious metals, our first thought is often Gold. It certainly is the most famous of precious metals, that the pursuit of Gold motivated many explorers and help empires expand, but perhaps a good contender for gold was silver.
Silver is a metal that has used as a means of finance for empires and prestige for those with wrath. Silver shares this commonality with Gold, yet its properties and uses in the modern age, makes Silver have more in common with Copper.
Silver has the atomic symbol of Ag. In Latin, it is known as Argentum. Arg is a root word in Indo-European meaning “white” or “shinny”.
Silver is the 65th most abundant metal in the world, compared to Gold as 72nd most abundant metal. To put that in perspective, there is about 1 gram of Silver for every 12.5 tonnes of earth.
Silver can be found by itself in nature, but is rather rare. Often it is found of ores of copper, lead, zinc, and gold. It can be found in minerals such as Argentite, Galena, and Chlorargyrite. Silver mining is produced largely in Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia, all of which have been mining since the 1500’s.
While the term Gold Rushes are well-known, there is also such a thing as Silver Rushes. In fact, there were many more Silver Rushes than there were Gold Rushes. Such as the Silver Rush on the Attic Peninsula over thousand years ago. Though much of the New World was littered with Silver Rushes.
While the Gold Rush of 1849 led to mass migration of people to California, there was other places in California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, as well other locations in the US. The reason Silver rushes had more of an impact than Gold rushes, was due to processing of other metals, such as Lead and Copper. More than that, Silver Rushes tend to last longer, especially in an economy of a town, than Gold rushes.
If we took all the Silver that has ever been mined, it would equal 1,614,555 US tons (1,464,700 metric tonnes). Prior to the 1500’s, only 7% of that was mined. Since the 1900’s, 75% of that was mined.
Silver is one of the most ductile metals second only to Gold, as the same as being the second most malleable metal. It is said that Silver can be hammered so thin, that 100,000 sheets would stack a little over an inch.
Silver is also the most reflective metal, giving it a high metal shine, which has been one of its great value. With a wavelength greater than 450nm, Silver outshines (pun intended) aluminum’s effectiveness, but a wavelength at less than 310nm and Aluminum is superior.
Silver has a higher electric conductivity of all metals, 140 times that of Copper. However, due to how expensive Silver can be, it is used, primarily for high end electronics such as Very High Frequency (VHF) equipment, but it is only plated over copper, as high frequency current tends to flow on the surface rather than its interior. You can find it in other electronic devices, but it is use sparingly, against due to the price.
Silver, like Copper, is stable in water. It is highly resistant to corrosion, but can tarnish if exposed to Ozone or Hydrogen Sulfide. In this case, it will form a black layer of Silver Sulfide, which can be cleaned off.
Silver has a relatively low melting point compared to other Metals of Antiquity at 1761 F (961 C). Because of its malleability and ductility, this made Silver idea for art and jewelry. More than that, it’s reflective nature makes for a nice shine.
Silver, in the form of silver halide (basically a salt formed when mixed with a halogen, in this case silver bromide), can be reactive to light. This has been the leading principle for photography. A simple explanation: molecules turn to black in the presence of light, and this change in the composition allows for images to occur. While Silver Halide was used since the 1800’s, it’s understanding of how it worked didn’t start until the 1930’s. This process is too complex to explain for this article, and will likely be a future article.
Silver is also recyclable.
While all metal can be smithed, Silver required it’s own specialty. For the most part, both Goldsmithing and Silversmithing used many of the same techniques, but was different enough to still be specialized. Most Goldsmithers knew how to smith Silver, but Silversmithers tend not to know how to work with gold.
Unlike blacksmithing, Silversmiths do not do shaping when the metal is hot. Again, Silver is a weak metal, so it can be shaped at room temperatures with gentle hammering. Silversmiths could work with other metals as well, but they mostly made silverware. It was Goldsmiths who worked with other applications of silver in other mixtures, and in some guilds, the working of silver was considered to be a part of Goldsmithing.
Silver can be produced to 99.995% pure, thought it is rarely used in its pure form due to its malleability, as it is considered too soft. While it is harder than Gold, it is softer than Copper. For this reason, many of silver’s uses requires an alloy.
Perhaps the more famous Silver alloy is Sterling Silver. While it is a term we hear a lot in the modern age, especially in connection to jewelry, it is a technique that has been used since the 12th century. Usually Silver is mixed with another metal, such as Copper, at a ratio of 95% to 5%. This little bit of copper gives Silver more strength than pure Silver. Sterling could be used for many things including eating utensils, cutlery, pots and pans, tea sets, to just about anything you can imagine as a novelty item.
Sterling Silver in many countries must be 92.5% silver to be sold as silver, though the US requires only 90%. Sterling Silver jewelry is often plated with a thin coat of pure silver to give it a good silver shine.
Electrum was another alloy that was primarily Gold and Silver, but could feature trace amounts of Copper. Usually found in nature, it was mined and used in place of gold in many applications, such as jewelry and coinage. Because Gold was mixed with Silver, it make it stronger than gold.
Alloys will have their own topic in the future.
It may surprise you how Silver was used throughout history. While harder metals such as steel was a major product of building our world, silver still has its uses.
Of the many things that Silver was used for, perhaps the most known prior to the modern age was coinage. While eventually coins will get their own article, I will explain this a little bit here.
For a metal to be idea of coinage, it must be able to stay in circulation (on average 30 years) a long time. More than that, it must have anti-corrosive properties and excellent wear resistance. One of the issues for using metals as coins is when the value of the metal is more than the value of the coin.
Silver, in all its properties, was ideal for that. Especially since it was also easier to stamp the metal for any design you desired. Silver, as a coin, was used by many culture, though most famous were the Ancient Greeks. Silver used as a coin was used throughout history, to some extent, more than gold. Often was used with another metal such as Copper, either as an allow, or with silver plated on copper.
Silver used as currency dates back 4000 years ago, making it likely one of the first precious metals used as currency. During the time of Ancient Greece, it was a currency used throughout the Mediterranean, making it an international currency.
While Silver is not widely use in current economies, one can still purchase silver coins as means for an investment. Purchase a coin in the idea of selling it later for a higher price, provided the value increases in the future. Like the Stock Market, there is no guarantee that will happen.
Interesting side note, in 1516 a mine was discovered in Bohemia. The silver coins produced from there were called thaler. In the 17th century, Holland became a world power and had their own coin similar to a thaler, called a daalder. When the Dutch migrated to New Amsterdam (now known as New York), they took the daalder with them, which was referred to as, dollars.
Prior to the use of silver, people would use pools of water as a mirror or even obsidian in 6000BC. Other metals could be polished to give a mirror shine, such as Copper or Bronze. It wasn’t until 500AD, China used an amalgam of Silver-Mercury to make mirrors.
In 1835, a technique known as Silvering made use of using glass with a thin layer of silver on the glass. This technique has been known since the middle ages, but it was done with other metals.
Today, mirrors still make use of Silver or Aluminum. Despite its reflective nature, silver was likely not used for mirrors due to its rarity and cost. Silver is often applied to the back of the mirror, and has extra coats of tin and copper before protective paint is applied. The use of silver glass mirrors makes for a clear exact image that is durable.
Further usage of Silver with mirrors is the use of Solar Panels. Technically these are mirrors, but used for a different purpose. Solar Panels are used for turning the energy of the sun into electricity, and silver is one of main components that allow that to happen as it is the most reflective metal.
Expanding from Mirrors, silver can be applied to glass for other reason. One instance is for telescopes. While most telescoped use Aluminum, infrared telescopes make use of Silver coated mirrors, due to silver’s ability to reflect infrared emissions.
Silver can also be applied to glass for the purpose of insulation for a family home. While a small amount is used for a single window, it can help reduce the amount of heat entering a home by 95%.
When it comes to our well being, Silver is used in a wide variety of ways.
Like Copper (and many other metals), Silver is antimicrobial. It’s not fully understood why metals react like this with bacteria, but it is believed that Silver Ions interrupts the bonds of bacteria (including its wall structure), which cause it to break apart. Throughout history, people would put a Silver coin in water, wine or milk, to keep it purified. Many containers for water were Silver for this reason, even containers for wine was silver such as cups and pitchers.
However, like Copper, there is a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to the health benefits of Silver, often belonging to New Age Medicine that cannot be confirmed by Health Regulatory Agencies. It’s not my intention to say whether something can work as it is described to work, I will tell both sides of the stories and let you the reader make up your own mind. Consult a specialist if you have further questions.
Silver is used in anti-bacterial creams and lotions known as Silver sulfadiazine. While tests have been poor in showing a great benefit, the USDA has approved the use of Silver-based applications for used in second and third degree burns. The World Health Organizations have listed Silver sulfadiazine as a medicine needed in health care.
Furthermore, as Silver can be used in dressings, no study has conclusively proved that it increases or decreases healing rates. The same with breathing tubes with the interior being coated with silver. The idea is that they could kill germs before they get into the body, but more study needs to be conducted.
Silver Halide was mentioned for photography earlier in the article, but the same principal is used in X-Ray technology for medical imaging. With the use of X-Rays and silver films, we can see through the body. Primarily we see bones, but can see muscles and other elements of the body. Today, the use of silver is being phased out in favor of digital imaging, but is still used in developing countries that don’t have access to such technologies.
Prior to the widespread use of antibiotics, Colloidal Silver was used for health reasons. It stopped being used in the 1940’s in favor of antibiotics, but has recently resurged in the 1990’s as a cure all. The USDA has found no conclusive proof that colloidal silver is effective in treating anything, much less a cure for HIV, Influenza, Cancer, or overall general health. Prolonged use of colloidal silver may turn your skin blue (I’m not kidding about that), which is known as Argyria. In 1999, USDA banned its use as a medicine, but can be found is many New Age shops under different names and online retailers.
Unlike Copper, Silver is not found in our bodies, nor is it required to be in our bodies. As such, there is no such thing as a deficiency of silver.
Silver can also be used for water purification. Both the MIR orbital station and the International Space Agency used Silver filtration for water. Hospitals also employ filters of silver and copper for water purification.
You have have heard of the expression, “Born with a Silver Spoon in Mouth”. This is in reference to babies being given food with a silver spoon, believed to give babies a better chance at survival. Given the antimicrobial nature of silver, there is suggestion this would be true. Now it is often a reference of someone being born into wealth. Plus, during the time of the bubonic plague, those who ate with silver utensils tend to be healthier.
“Blue Bloods” is also believed to coined as a term around this same time. You were designated a blue blood since repeated use of silver caused your skin to turn blue, some more than others.
More than any other metal, there is a lot of mythology surrounding Silver. Gold is another metal with a lot of myth as well, but not as much as Silver.
Likely, much of the mythology of Silver centered around its rarity and its unexplained properties. How a jug of silver made wine palatable longer, or how silver would turn to black if exposed to sulfur (in case someone put sulfur in your wine, and the wine turned black). Since there was no means to explain how this occurred, supernatural beliefs were made.
Gold was thought to be based on the sun, where Silver was thought to be based on the moon. Since it was white and reflective, it was associated with the moon by many cultures around the world. Interesting, Artemis was the goddess of the moon wore sandals made of silver and fired a silver arrow with a silver bow. The moon would later be associated to women, and thus silver was associated to women as well.
While Gold is less common that Silver; for the Ancient Egyptians, Silver was more rare. What little they had, was used as jewelry. It was believed that while their God’s had skin of Gold, their bones were made of Silver. Likely because of the colour of silver and the colour of our bones being white.
With its rarity, expense, healing properties, connection to deities, and the moon; add to it that a hero needs to forge a great weapon, Silver was a perfect holy metal.
Since Supernatural elements tend to happen at night time, and the moon was most present at night, it was believed that the moon caused (or added to) supernatural events, but not as a source of power. Such as Werewolves being forced to be their wolf form upon a Full Moon. Thus, Silver weapons were believed to harm/kill supernatural beings for this reason.
There was also the legends about vampires and reflection of mirrors. Since many mirrors were (and still are) made with Silver, it was believed that their light was unholy, and that is why their reflection didn’t show on mirrors. This has evolved to be any reflective surface, whether silver is used or not. This has also been used to justify why vampires do not show up in photographs or movies. Technically, a vampire should show up on a digital photograph or an Aluminum mirror.
Many legends have the use of weapons of silver. Even the Elder Scrolls series has silver weapons. But how feasible is it to have a sword or bullets made of silver?
The problem with silver as a weapon is similar to the problems of copper as a weapon, only worse. If you recall from my Copper article, it was used for weapons, but was very poor as a weapon, as it was malleable, and would deform under repeated use, plus it loses its sharpness. The same with Silver, as it is even more malleable than Copper, thus why its called a ‘soft metal’.
In my Daygar Legacy series, I combat this problem in several ways. First, my main character has a Damascus Steel sword. It’s rather old, but it was made as 2 parts Silver, 4 parts Steel. Given how Damascus Steel was made, this would be stable enough as a weapon while hurting vampires. The other characters use Steel swords with silver coating. However, I reason in the universe that they chip after repeated use and must have coating reapplied occasionally. While Silver ordinarily doesn’t kill vampires, in my universe, Silver or yew wood through the heart does kill them.
Then we have Silver Bullets. Originally, any silver weapon could be used on werewolves to kill them, but with the popularity of firearms, it soon transformed to be Silver Bullets. Michael Briggs found that while you can make a bullet of pure silver, they are slower than lead bullets and less accurate. More than that, an ordinary person couldn’t just make a bullet as it has a higher melting point than Lead. One could melt lead over a kitchen stove. Silver also has the issue of shrinking down in size more the Lead would.
Though it might be possible to have a coating of Silver on the bullet or the tip of the bullet. A similar technique is used with Copper. The advantage of this, other than being dense enough and more accurate than a pure Silver bullet, is that you need less silver.
Another solution to this problem is a shotgun. From what I understand, ammunition for a shotgun, you can use junk metal into a round, likely by taking the ammo apart. I will likely understand this more when I do articles on firearms.
The history of silver is hard to map out, as most resources refer to its use as coinage or its overall value, rather than what techniques were developed or how processing was improved. This is due to the fact that silver was primarily used for currency, which had a major impact on the world, and still does today. Mapping out currency will be its own article.
Prehistory (2.5 million years ago to 3600BC)
Like most metals during this time, we don’t know when precisely it was found and in what way. We estimate that somewhere about 5000 BC was it discovered, and can confirmed silver smelting operations in 4000 BC.
Some studies suggest that Egyptians knew of it in 6000BC.
Ancient Age (3600BC to 800BC)
In this period of history, Silver was relatively known. Egypt had known of it, but was not as available to them as silver was. Due to this, silver was a much higher value than gold was.
Anatolia, a major mining hub, started to mine Silver around 3000 BC. This is believed to be the first actual mining of silver, while other silver was merely found on the surface.
2500 BC – Chaldeans improved upon Anatolia’s technique of extracting Silver from Lead, known as cupellation. This process involved heating the metal in a shallow cup so air could blow over it. This oxidise the Lead and Copper, and it floated to the top. Silver doesn’t react to oxygen, so it would remain at the bottom.
In about 1200 B.C., Athens, Greece cornered the market of Silver mining, improving upon the technique of extraction, gaining more silver that was more pure than any other culture.
Age of Antiquity (800BC to 500AD)
In 600 BC, coins of Electrum (silver-gold alloy) were minted in Lydia. Soon after, many city-states had their own Silver or gold currency that traded with other city-state and Egypt, who still had a deficiency in Silver. This influenced many nations around the known world from the Romans to the Chinese to have currency, specifically silver currency.
Lydia used a process called Salt Cementation to separate Gold and Silver. Gold and Silver are a lot alike and difficult to separate them. Salt Cementation basically put an ore of Electrum in a jar at 1000 C, filled with burnt clay or old brick dust, salt, and urine (yes, urine). It’s believed this made the Gold and Silver 90% pure.
5th Century BC, Herodutus mentions a King, that when he traveled, he had water in silver jars as the only water the King would drink. This would have disinfected the water and allow it to last for several months.
Around 400 BC, Hippocrates listed silver as a medicine.
Marcus Porcius Cato wrote the De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture) in 160 BC. He talks about how to properly prepare wine and mentions use of silver, even going as far as talk about cleaning it before use and sealing it up before it is drank.
Somewhere between 60 AD – 120 AD, there was use of Cupellation technology developed by pre-Inca civilization in the Americas.
Between 1st to 5th Century AD, people threw coins in Coventina’s Well, believed to grant good luck. This is the earliest mention of wishing wells I can find, but it was likely a tradition started as water purification, as most coins were copper or silver. Eventually, the tradition of making a wish evolved. Some Germanic cultures would throw weapons or armor after a battle in wishing wells, though that would have contaminated the water, as they were often made of lead, iron, or steel and might have had blood on it.
Middle Ages (500AD – 1500AD)
Unlike most other resources, Silver continued to boom throughout the Middle Ages with discovery of new mines and improved technology such as water power. It was also seen as a prestigious item, especially in silverware.
600 AD – Chinese made use of silver chopsticks, believed that it could detect poison in food. While chopsticks won’t react to most poisons, it will to sulfur. Unfortunately, garlic, onions, and rotten eggs can cause silver to turn black.
Around 700 AD, Middle East used silver for a number of medications.
800 AD, Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne established several silver mines to help build his empire.
980 AD, Avicenna used silver for a number of remedies, including: blood purifier, bad breath, and palpitations of the heart.
12th Century Europe used acid parting to separate gold and silver.
11th – 12th Century began use of Sterling Silver.
Renaissance (1400AD – 1700AD)
Between 1500 and 1800, Bolivia, Peru and Mexico accounted for over 85 percent of world production and trade of Silver.
In 1554, Bartolomé de Medina developed the Patio Process in Mexico. This made used of salt water (or water with salt added), copper sulfate, and mercury to improve the processing of ore, due to low yields of New Spain (now Mexico) Silver. This could also work for Gold.
In 1609, Alvaro Alonso Barba invented the Pan Amalgamation process of extracting silver from ore using mercury. Similar to the Patio Process, instead of taking weeks, it could be done in 10 hours. It mostly involved pouring ingredients into copper pans.
In 1614, Angelo Sala discovered that Silver Salt (silver nitrate) would turn black in the presence of light. This would be important for the invention of photography in the 1800s.
Industrial Revolution (1700AD – 1900AD)
In the 19th century, sailors on long ocean voyages would put silver coins in barrels of water and wine to keep the liquid pure.
In the 1860’s, a variation of the Pan Amalgamation process was developed by Almarin B. Paul. This involved using Iron tanks with holding about 1200lbs of rock with a cylinder loaded into the tank as a means of stirring to crush into smaller size, with the addition of heat, water, and mercury. This was known as the Washoe Process.
A further variation of both Pan Amalgamation and Washoe Process was the Reese River Process. While Washoe worked quite well, it had difficulties with ores that contained arsenic, antimony sulfiedes, galena, or sphalerite. Cart A. Stetefeldt roasted the ore with salt allowed for better processing with those elements in the rock.
1896, William Stewart Halsted introduced Silver foil as dressing for closing wounds.
By 1897, silver nitrate began to be used in America to prevent blindness in newborns.
Post-Industrial (1900AD – 1945AD)
1910, Henry Crookes had documented that certain metals, when in a colloidal state, had strong germicidal action, but were harmless to human beings. This led to the use of Colloidal Silver to be used as a medicine.
With the needs of World War 1 and 2 (most from WW2), Copper was greatly needed, and Silver was used in its place in many application, either as a complete replacement, or plating copper. It could also replace tin as solder and was used in searchlights. We also saw silver nickles to free up steel.
1942, Kenneth Nichols, of the Manhattan Project, asked the US Treasury department for 6,000 tons of silver, due to the shortage of Copper. Eventually given 14,700 tones of silver. In 1970, with the dismantling of the equipment, only a little bit of silver was unrecoverable, the rest was given back to the Treasury.
Atomic Era (1945 – 1980)
In the 1950s, starting with the Mark 37, Torpedoes since have used a Silver-Zinc batteries and a secondary rechargeable batter made with silver oxide.
In 1957, Sputnik also used Silver-Zinc batteries, same with Saturn Rockets and Apollo moon modules.
Information Age (1970 – Present)
1975, Dr. Bernard Vonnegut and Professor Henry Chessin got a patent for using silver idodide for the purposes of Cloud Seeding, which is a way of manipulating weather.
Silver is used from a wide range of appliances, including computers, TV’s, keyboards. Silver has been used since the 1800’s for electronics, mostly for plating on other wires or used for connections and soldering.
Silver’s rarity is going to be its major obstacle for future endeavors with it. For the future, you will need to find a bigger supply of it. In this instance, finding a metal alloy that uses the benefits of silver will be your best bet for your story. Copper and aluminum seem to be your best bets, though element X, but anything you want could be what you need to alloy with silver. Some possible future uses include the following.
Silver can be applied to clothing. Since Silver prevents the growth of bacteria and fungus, it may help to reduce odors from clothing. This is done with the use of silver nanofibers or coating fabric in silver prior to clothing manufacturing. There is a loss of silver in washing, but how much is dependent upon on the fabric. What effect it has on the environment is unknown.
Silver can also be used in battieries, and more efficient the Lithium by 35%. However, the cost of Silver prevents its widespread use. Likely, future energy systems will need to make use of Silver.
Silver is being looked at to be used in antibiotics. As we know, Silver and Copper prevents growth of bacteria, and the use of silver could add to antibiotics effective. Early estimates suggest an improvement of 1000%.
In the last few years, Silver Nanopartical ink has been designed that can allow electrical paths printed on any material. This may very well improve the computing industry, as well give advances to computers such as electrical circuits in our clothing or any other material we can print on. This means that less silver is needed to make a computer.
Recently, Oregon State University has developed a way of making fabricated silver for the purposes of printing. This could solve our problems of silver rarity for use of technology, but for now it would have limited use. Perhaps there is a future where fabricating any material will be feasible.
You probably never thought that the smaller brother to Gold was so massive. In many ways, Silver stands on its own. While definitely a good use for currency, there is a wide range of other applications, many that I haven’t listed here.
While you have metals such as Steal and Lead that you will have to actively think about when you design your world, Silver is one you should give a little bit of thought to. Especially given its health benefits, but also its benefits to photography and computers. It does seem through out history that the properties of Silver was somewhat understood, but even today, our full understanding of it is still a bit limited.
Of course, this article can’t cover everything. Hell, I’m quite certain this is my longest article and I tried to hold some things back, but there is a lot of important stuff to know for Silver. But I do want to leaving you with a thought.
During my research, I learned that silver is formed in small stars that go nova, while gold is form in large stars that go nova. When a solar system forms, it often takes what particles are around it to create what minerals will be found there.
Now, I don’t expect you to apply cosmology to your worldbuilding, as even I think that is going overboard (though you can if you like). The point I’m making here is that the universe seems to be infinitely unique, and just because Silver is rare on our planet, doesn’t mean your fictional world must be. Perhaps, silver is quite common. Just be prepared to explain why it is so common, as people will believe that what is good for Earth, is good for your world.
I need $125 by October 30th, 2017. Anything you can give will help.