Today we talk about a giant in the metal world that is often unseen, but you feel its awesome potential anywhere and everywhere you go in this world. We are talking about Tin. It is a powerful element that is responsible for the Bronze Age and help in applications you wouldn’t think possible.
In this article, as we do another Metal of Antiquity, we’ll discuss all of that and more, looking at its importance in our world, its history, and why you need to consider it when making your world, whether a fantasy setting or a futuristic science fiction tale.
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Tin has an atomic number of 50 (physics magic number) with the symbol Sn. Sn is short for Stannum. Stannum originally was a term for an alloy of Silver and Lead, but was eventually designated for Lead around 4th century BC. Prior to that, it was called Plumbum Candidum (white/bright Lead), under the belief that Tin was a form of Lead.
Tin is the 49th most common element that occurs naturally in crust at 2.2ppm, compared to Lead which 14ppm and Silver that is 70ppb (note the b, indicating it is even more rare). However, Tin does not occur as a native element, unlike other metals that do (rare). It can be found in various ores, such as Cassiterite, which is primarily Tin with some iron. Other sources of tin are: stannite, cylindrite, franckeite, canfieldite, and teallite.
While Tin can have uses on its own, such as metal coating, it is primarily used as an alloy with other metals. Because of this, there will be more information in the Alloy section versus the Application section, as Application mostly refers to how the metal is used on its own.
Tin is a silvery-white metal, quite often the colour one thinks metal generally is. Of the Metals of Antiquity, it has the lowest melting point that is above room temperature (since Mercury is liquid at room temperature) at 450 F (232 C). Tin is malleable and ductile.
Commercial grade of Tin come in 99.8% pure. It’s impurity is generally Bismuth, Antimony, Lead, and/or Silver. It is resistant to water, but weak against acids and alkalis. It has a protective layer of oxide, that protects it against an oxygen environment. Furthermore, it can have a high polish and is often used as a protective coating for other metals. Tin is also recyclable. In recent years, it has become a bigger source for Tin, with the US becoming the largest producer of secondary, or scrap, Tin in the world. The US has not mined for Tin since 1993.
Tin can suffer from something known as Tin Pest (also known as Tin Disease, Tin Blight, and Tin Leprosy). Often mistaken as corrosion, Tin Pest is a transformation of Tin when in the cold. The transformation begins at 56 F (13.2 C), and basically transforms from β-form White Tin, to a more brittle nonmetallic form called α-form Grey Tin. It is slow to start, but can be rapid once it does. Given enough time in a cold environment, Tin will go from a solid metal to a powder.
Tin Pest is believed to be a problem for British explorer Robert Scott, who wanted to be the first to reach the South Pole. He was beaten by Norwegian Ronald Amundsen. In 1912 at the first cache of equipment, there was no kerosene in the cans. These cans were soldered with Tin, and may have experienced Tin Pest, which then leaked the kerosene. This is up for speculation, as it is believed that the solder was of poor quality, as cans as old as 80 years have been discovered in Antarctica, with the Tin solder intact.
Tin Pest can be avoided by alloying with small amounts of Antimony, Bismuth, Silver, Indium, and Lead.
Another notable issue that Tin can suffer is known as Metal Whiskers (or Tin Whiskers in the case of Tin). Metal Whiskers is a phenomenon of spontaneous growth of tiny hairs from a metallic surface. For Tin, this is present in solder for electronic components. This can cause short circuits due to arching. Interestingly, the use of Lead in soldier can mitigate the grown of these hairs, but Lead is toxic to humans, which is being phased out. Any solders used today has to be safe for human use that mitigates the growth of these hairs.
At present time, it is not fully understood what causes this.
Examples of Tin Whiskers causing problems is the Galaxy IV telecommunications satellite, which was disabled due to Tin Whiskers forming from Tin coating. Since this failure, Hughes Space and Communications Company has switched to Nickel coating, but this change has added 100 to 200lbs of weight to the satellite.
Another example of Tin Whiskers lead to the shutdown of Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut. This was due to the fact that it kept sending a “false alarm” that indicate a drop in pressure in the reactor’s steam system. There was no problem with the steam system, but it was discovered that Tin Whiskers shorted the circuit board that responsible for monitoring the steam pressure.
Tin will make a sound if you bend it. It is called a cry, or a scream. However, this sound is not very audible, unless you boost its sound through a speaker system. The bar will continue to ‘cry’ until it is broken. The bar can be repaired by melting it and reforming the bar. I know that this has something to do with crystal twinning, but don’t fully understand it beyond that.
Of all alloys that involve Tin, the most important to the development of mankind is Bronze. Bronze is primarily Copper with Tin mixed in. It’s believed to be an accident in its initial discovery, that somehow the metals got mixed together (probably through a fire), and that the result proved to be something much better.
Tin improves Copper’s hardness, density, and lowers its melting point. Because of this, Bronze had an advantage over copper as a tool and a weapon, as it could hold its shape/sharpness after repeated use. More than that, Bronze could be used for more complex shapes, unlike Copper.
Bronze is such a prevalent alloy, that when a civilization starts general use of Bronze, we refer to that time as the Bronze Age. While we generally refer this to a specific era in history (3000BC), every civilization generally has their own Bronze Age.
However, not every civilization that had a Bronze Age had immediate access to Tin. The primary sources of Tin in the Ancient age were: Malay Peninsula; Devon and Cornwall; England, Brittany, France; Germany/Czech Republic border; Spain; Portugal; and Central & Southern Africa. Other sources, such Syria and Egypt, have been suggested, but there have been inconclusive evidence to support that.
As such, any civilization that desired the use of Bronze would have to trade for Tin, as there was only a few known sources of it.
Tin can be anywhere from 5% to 70% of solders. Primarily used for electronic equipment joining pipes together. Lead was used with solders as a way to prevent Tin Whiskers, but Lead toxicity is pushing for Lead free solder. Copper, Silver, Bismuth, Indium, Zinc, Antimony are now used in various applications as alloys for Lead-Free Solders. Solder can also suffer from Tin Pest.
A sample of what metals do for Tin Solder:
- Antimony: Increases strength, prevents tin pest.
- Bismuth: Lowers melting point. Reduces growth of Tin Whiskers.
- Copper: Lowers melting point. May promote growth of Tin Whiskers.
- Indium: Lowers melting point, improves ductility. Easily oxidizes, which causes problems.
- Lead: Retards growth of Tin Whiskers, inhibits Tin Pest. Toxic.
Pewter is a metal alloy that consists of 85% – 99% Tin, with the remainder being Copper, Antimony, Bismuth, and Lead. The use of Copper and Antimony act as hardeners for Tin.
This was originally developed in the Bronze Age, with the earliest known use was in Egypt around 1450 BC. In 1348, Worshipful Company of Pewter was formed, that acted more of a guild house for Pewter smiths. Throughout its history (still in existence today), it has 3 grades of Pewter
- Fine Metal – Use for Tableware. 99% Tin, 1% Copper
- Trifling Metal – Used for Holloware. 96% Tin, 4% Lead
- Lay metals – Used for items that were not in contact with food and drink. 85% Tin, 15% Lead.
As in our discussion of Lead and effects on the human body, Pewter today does not use Lead.
Another type of Pewter is called Britannia Metals (also referred to as Britannium). About 92% is Tin, with 6% Antimony, and 2% Copper. This is different than Britannia Silver. However, it did serve as a base for silver coating on many items. It was first produced by James Vickers in 1770. Famous use of Britannia Metals is the Oscar Golden Statue, which has gold plating.
Tin is a primary element in babbitt alloys.
Tin is found in Bell Metals. Technically a bronze, but this is a 4:1 ratio of Copper and Tin (as regular bronze has up to 12% Tin). This ratio is done as being the best for acoustics for the bell sound. Bell Metals has other good properties, which is used as utensils, early Cannons, and musical instruments such as Cymbals.
Much for the acoustics of bell metal, Tin is found in Organ Pipes. Usually a 50/50 with Lead.
Some currency, such as the American or Canadian Pennies will use about 1% – 9% (usually 5%) of Tin.
Queen’s Metal, which is nine parts Tin, and one each of Antimony, Lead, and Bismuth. This was a secret formula used only for the English Royal Family.
Rose’s Metal, which is 50% Bismuth, 25% Lead, 25% Tin. Used to solder cast iron railings and baluster for stone bases and steps. Also used for tubes and pipes to prevent crimping. Rose’s Metal is filled inside the tube and is then solidified. The metal is still malleable, which allows the pipe to be bent without crimping.
Wood’s Metal (weird name) 50% Bismuth, 26.7% Lead, 13.3% Tin, and 10% Cadmium. It can be used in fire sprinkler systems, since it has a low melting point. When melted, the valve in the sprinkler is set to on. It can also be used for thin-walled metal tubes/pipes. Like Rose’s Metal, this allows the tube to be bent without destroying it. It’s also known to be used by railroad model enthusiasts to add weight to locomotives. However, because of the Lead, it is toxic.
Mining for Tin started in rivers from Alluvial deposits. Much like Gold, one could take the gravel and find Cassiterite. However, this process of collecting gravel also had other unwanted minerals, such as: quartz, mica, and feldspar. To combat this, one would let water pass over their collection of gravel, and let the lighter stuff wash away, leaving behind Cassiterite.
This had the unfortunate problem of clogging rivers as washing away the useless minerals would collect down river, which did affect businesses. Laws had to be enacted to try to prevent this from happening.
By the 15th century, Tin in riverbeds were becoming scarce. This resulted in digging ditches along sources of Casiterite. This again was separating the useless dirt with the useful mineral(s) they were after. This is similar to our use of open pit mining today.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that mining Tin involved underground mining. While it was something that was done in the past, it really wasn’t viable, as it often involved digging into granite, and had to deal with underground water. It was during this time, technology was capable of dealing with these problems. The reason for this shift is once again, the scarcity of Tin from rivers and ditches.
Once the rock was mined, it was crushed, to remove useless rock and keep the useful tin. Then it would be concentrated together, before being smelted. Melting was easy, which just required fire. Cooling was a different issue, which at first required using a hill and let the air blow past. By 1300’s, blowing houses were created, with used bellows powered by the river to constantly blow things to a cool temperature.
Today, we make use of dredging rivers or other shallow water sources, removing the sediment, but allow rivers to be flowable. Other methods involve open pit mining. The process of mining and smelting will be discussed in more detail in later articles.
Since Tin is primarily used in Alloys and not so much by itself, most of its applications are featured in Alloys. This section features the use of Tin not featured in an alloy.
Also known as Tin plating. The use of Tin plating generally enables a rust application. Tin cans is perhaps the most used product of Tin platting, which is usually a can of steel (use to be Lead), that is coated in Tin, then sealed as a form of food preservation.
Prior to the invention of refrigeration, foods were stored in food safes (or pie safes). This was a method to keep vermin and bugs out of the food, and prevent dust from collecting. It would be made of wood, but use Tin either as a door and/or walls. Some walls had holes punched out to allow air to flow through.
A process known as the Pilkington process, uses molten glass and pours it on molten Tin. The tin will hold the glass up without sinking, which allows the glass to form flat.
I’m sure you’ve heard of a tin foil hat. Tin was once used as foil, generally for food preservation. It was later replaced by Aluminum Foil, though many still referred to it as Tin Foil (even I sometimes call it that). The use of Aluminum was superior and overall cheaper, and Tin Foil would often leave a Tin taste with foods. The use of Tin also came before refrigeration.
Very little information is available about this. All I know is that Aluminum foil hit the market around 1910.
Organotin is added to PVC to stabilize it. Without it, PVC would melt under heat and light.
Tin has been used for gazing of pottery through history. It can be used as an opacifier or as a white colour.
It’s practically unknown of a case of Tin Poisoning. It can happen, but it is very seldom. Tin can be a poison for Humans and animals, but it takes a lot, as it is not easily absorbed. Now say you are using Tin utensils of low quality and eating out of a can of low quality tin, and that food has an acid (like citric acid) and you eat only that everyday… there’s a chance you could get Tin poisoning.
Symptoms of Tin poisoning are: nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
For the most part, any time you are eating any canned food, you are ingesting Tin. You’d have to consume about 200mg of Tin to feel any effects of it. However, any can made in the last 30 years wouldn’t even come close to being a health risk to you, so there is no reason not to eat something from a can. I still do.
The history is a little light, since most of the use of tin was related to alloys. Those alloys will have its own articles and won’t really be discussed here.
Prehistory (2.5 million years ago to 3600BC)
There’s good chance that Tin was known about during this time, but nothing is really recorded about it. It is believe, along with Lead, to be one of the first metals smelted, and is primarily responsible for creating Bronze, thus the Bronze age.
Ancient Age (3600BC to 800BC)
3000 BC – Somewhere around this time, it was discovered that a little bit of tin mixed with copper created a new metal. Starting what we now call the Bronze Age. Likely discovered in Turkey.
2500 BC – Tin may have first be mined in Europe at Erzgebirge. Chinese began mining Tin.
2000 BC – Cornwall mine discovered.
1580 BC – 1350 BC – Tin ring and bottle found in Egyptian Tomb dating to this time period. Likely the tin was an import.
Age of Antiquity (800BC to 500AD)
Tin was still used, primarily as alloys, rarely by itself.
Middle Ages (500AD – 1500AD)
Fall of Rome had quite the impact, but Tin was still mined for the use of Peweter. With the Bubonic plague, Tin mining declined, but didn’t really start picking back up until the 16th Century. This decline didn’t just affect production, but also trade.
1000 AD – Mining began around this time in Peru, Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina.
Renaissance (1400 – 1700)
Still used in alloys, the used of Tin-Glazing became more widespread during this time.
Industrial Revolution (1700 – 1900)
Mid-1700’s – Dutch Navy made use of Tinplated Iron canisters to preserve food, which also required it to be packed in fat.
1810 – Peter Durand got a patent in England for using Tinplated steel to can food.
1812 – Bryan Dorkin and John Hall set up the first commercial canning factory in London, after Peter Durand sold his patent to them.
1818 – Thomas Kensett introduced Tin-Plated cans in US.
1825 – Thomas Kensett and Erza Dagget got a US patent for canning.
1830s – The first tin toys were made in the US.
1860s – Major Toy manufacturers were making Tin Toys in the US
1860s – Australia began large scale Tin Mining
1865 – 1895 – Considered to be the Golden Age of Tin Toys in the US
1890s – French and German companies began to produce Tin toys.
1892 – Dr. Washington Sheffield introduced toothpaste in metal tubes made of tin and lead.
Post-Industrial (1900 – 1945)
1901 – American Can Company founded.
1916 – Despite it’s nickname as Tin Hat, the Brodie Helmet was not made of Tin, but Steel.
1934 – German Company Rasselstein AG made use of electroplating of tin on steel. This allowed for thinner applications of tin, and different amounts on either side. This proved to be faster, cheaper, and more accurate than the standard of ‘tinning’ at the time.
During WW2, there was great effort to recycle metals, as many countries hadn’t fully recovered economically from WW1. In 1942, the US had a big push for Tin (among other metals) to be recycled, namely through Tin cans.
Atomic Age (1945 – 1980)
Tin has continued use in Tinning.
Information Age (1990 – Present)
At present, while there is a lot of need for Tin, there is a concern that within the next 20 years, there will be a great shortage of Tin unless new sources are discovered. Tin recycling becomes even more important than ever.
Despite shortages, there are promises of Tin being the key to the technologies of tomorrow.
The use of Tin nanocrystals in lithium-ion batteries to improve their capacity of electricity.
There is also Stanene. It is based on the concept of Graphene, which is carbon arranged one atom layer thick. Stanene is Tin in much the same way, that hypothetically be 100% energy efficient at room temperature. This may well be a replacement for Silicon processors and integrated circuits, promising to be smaller and faster (and more energy efficient). May even be a component of nanotechnology.
Tin is a heavy weight of the metal world, and yet, it is largely unnoticed. When we think about metals, we think about Copper… Gold… Silver… Platinum… but Tin? I thought this would be a rather short article, as I didn’t really know all of what Tin was used for. To my surprise, it is used for quite a lot.
Tin is important to know for your story, but mostly in use of Alloys such as Bronze and Pewter. Fantasy writers will likely have tin somewhere in their world, even if it is just dinnerware, to be used as a make-believe Silver to impress guests. There are also historical fiction writers, especially those with the Age of Discovery in the 1700’s to the modern era, that Tin was making a lot of breakthroughs, but it may be possible someone is eating out of a Tin can.
However, at the promise of one day replacing Silicon, that is very important for Sci-fi Writers. While food storage is important, and may likely use Tin coating of some sort, nanomachine technology may very well use Tin rather than Silicon. You will need to resolve our current problems of the lack of Tin.
Even though Tin is used in Alloys, likely which you may focus more on, you may still need to map out how manufacturers in your stories procure Tin. Is it something they mine, or something they trade for? If it is something they mine, then it is likely a commodity for trade, as others will need Tin to improve their way of life. If it is something they need to trade for, then you need to establish who they have diplomatic ties with and how trading is done.
Tin has an important impact on economics. Lots to think about.
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