Copper and Gold

For five bucks you can get a pound of copper and will probably get some change, too.

Not so much with gold. A troy ounce of gold goes for about two grand these days. A “pound” of gold would set you back about twenty-five thousand simoleons! I put pound in quotes because gold is not measured in pounds, at least not the kind of pounds we measure ourselves and everything else with. It’s a small point, but a troy ounce is about 31 grams whereas as an everyday common ounce (1/16 of an everyday common pound) is about 28 grams. The everyday common system we use for most things is called avoirdupois.

Gold has its own system, and there are twelve troy ounces to a troy pound which comes out to about 373 grams. An avoirdupois pound (sixteen ounces) is about 454 grams.

So it is hard to compare a pound of gold—twelve troy ounces—with a pound—sixteen avoirdupois ounces—of anything else. Other precious metals like silver and platinum use the troy system, but more pedestrian materials like copper use the pounds we are familiar with.

Now gold is interesting stuff. It is durable. It doesn’t lose its luster. It doesn’t oxidize or tarnish. It can be beat into most shapes including thin foils and it can be drawn into wire. But its too soft to really work with so it has to be alloyed with something like silver, copper, nickel, or zinc. American Gold Eagles, for example are 22 karat or not quite 92% pure (22/24 = 0.91666…).

Eagles are about 3% silver and about 5% copper.

Copper is the only other colored metal besides gold. Colored other than silvery-grey, that is! Copper is incredibly useful. In fact, our entire modern world could be said to be built on copper since it is required in all electrical devices and all electrical wiring. Think about your complete immersion into the electrical world. Don’t worry, you are not alone. We are all there with you. Our lives are entirely dependent on our electrical system. No copper, no electricity. No electricity, no modern civilization.

Gold has messed with the minds of men for millenia. I live in the Golden State, and that does not just describe the color of our sunsets or of our sun-baked grasslands. Driving the back roads of the county this morning we encountered tailings piles that would take an army of dump trucks to move that were washed off the hillsides 150 years ago. El Dorado infected more than just the conquistadors.

Copper, like gold, is found in its native state, that is as a pure metal and not as a compound. Iron has to be extracted from ore, for example, as does aluminum. Ancient peoples knew all about copper. Copper dulls over time, as do bronze and brass, the well-known alloys. Patinas on bronzes, for example can be part of their charm. Copper kitchenware and things like brew kettles have to be cleaned and buffed to keep their shine. I particularly like the reddish cast of copper and the so-called “pink” or “rose” gold alloy is usually 18-karat and thus 75% gold with 25% copper (18/24 = 0.75).

Gold gets a lot of attention these days. In times of uncertainty people invest in gold. Or hoard it!

But copper is deserving of a place in the pantheon. We can live our whole lives and never need an ounce of gold. The average American, to live at his or her preferred standard of comfort, will require about thirteen pounds of copper per year. Over a lifetime of 85 years, that’s 1105 pounds. Just think, a THOUSAND POUNDS or half a ton of the stuff!

Good thing it’s only five bucks a pound.

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