IV: Copper

How much is copper really worth?

IV: Copper
Copper pipes. Photo by Ra Dragon / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is quartidi, the 24th of Nivôse, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate le cuivre, a valuable metal for conducting electricity.

Copper is named for the island Cyprus, the ancient world's primary source of the material. But this was a secondary word, one that came along later to distinguish pure copper from its more useful (in pre-electronic times) alloy with tin: bronze. The word for either was present in Latin as aes, which slipped into Germanic and morphed into the English word "ore," a generic term for any pure substance yanked from a mine. As the first metal humans learned to work to inventive ends, copper and bronze form the very basis of our language about mining.

You've heard the stories of people stealing odd objects just to get at the copper. Almost every modern industrial appliance needs copper to some extent, either for its property of conductivity or its ability to transport water without corroding. The key is that copper is perfectly recyclable. Melt it down and you have the same amount of metal you began with (give or take spillage) and can remold it to whatever purpose you need. It's a clean commodity.

Like gold. One reason, besides aesthetics, that gold has remained the standard bearer of money-ness throughout history and across cultures is that same recyclability. Get your hands on gold, and you can shape it into whatever currency you designate, or whatever object of awe-inspiring wealth you desire. But gold is rarer than copper, and less durable, and far less useful. In our utilitarian times, is copper more valuable than gold?

The answer is an economic dance that many people believe has the power to predict the future.

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