The Enduring Appeal of Gold
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AUSTRALIA
DEEP in the Australian bush, a prospector trudges up a dry creek bed. The midday sun scorches his back. Sweat seeps through his dusty shirt. Undeterred, he clutches a long metal rod that is attached to a dinner-plate-size device. He swings the state-of-the-art metal detector to and fro across the ground. Its magnetic field penetrates three feet [1 m] into the stony soil. The headphones clamped to his ears pick up a signal from the metal detector and emit a steady, high-pitched whistle.
Suddenly his pulse quickens as the high-pitched whistle descends to a guttural clicking noise—a sure sign that his device is above buried metal. He drops to his knees and starts digging. With urgent jabs his small pick penetrates the hard earth. The object is likely just a rusty nail. It could be an old coin. But as the hole deepens, his eyes strain for a hint of gold.
An Ongoing Gold Rush
The methods of finding gold may have changed, but throughout history mankind has eagerly sought this lustrous yellow metal. In fact, over the past 6,000 years, according to the World Gold Council, more than 125,000 tons of gold has been mined.a While ancient civilizations in Egypt, Ophir, and South America were famous for their wealth in gold, more than 90 percent of all the gold ever mined has been unearthed during the last 150 years.—1 Kings 9:28.
The boom started in 1848 when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill, on the American River, in California, U.S.A. The find triggered what came to be known as a rush—a flood of hopeful prospectors descending on an area. All who came dreamed of finding their fortune buried in the California soil. Many failed, but some succeeded spectacularly. In 1851 alone, 77 tons was produced from just the California gold fields.
About the same time, gold was discovered on the other side of the world in the fledgling colony of Australia. Edward Hargraves, who had gained valuable experience in the California gold fields, came to Australia and found gold in a stream near the small town of Bathurst, New South Wales. During 1851, major deposits were also discovered at Ballarat and Bendigo, in the state of Victoria. When news of the discoveries spread, the rush began. Some who came were professional miners. Many, though, were farmhands or office workers who had never before swung a miner’s pick. Describing the scene in one gold-rush town, a local paper of the day declared: “Bathurst is mad again. The delirium of gold fever has returned with increased intensity. Men meet together, stare stupidly at each other, talk incoherent nonsense and wonder what will happen next.”
What happened next? A population boom. In the decade following 1851, the number of people living in Australia doubled as optimistic prospectors converged on the country from all corners of the globe. Gold was discovered in varying quantities across the continent. When one rush slowed, another began. In just the year 1856, Australian prospectors unearthed 95 tons of gold. Then, in 1893, miners started coaxing gold from the ground near Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia. Since that time, over 1,300 tons has been extracted from what is described as “the richest square mile [2.5 square kilometers] of gold-bearing dirt in the world.” That area is still producing gold and now boasts the world’s deepest opencut gold mine—a man-made canyon over one mile [1.5 km] wide, nearly two miles [3 km] long, and more than 1,200 feet [360 m] deep!
Today, Australia is the third-largest gold producer in the world. The industry employs 60,000 people and extracts about 300 tons, or five billion dollars’ (Australian) worth, of gold annually. The United States is the world’s second-largest miner of gold. For over a hundred years, though, the world’s leading gold producer has been South Africa. Almost 40 percent of all the gold ever mined has come from that country. Worldwide, more than 2,000 tons of gold is extracted each year. What happens to all that precious metal?
Wealth and Beauty Combined
Some gold is still used to make coins. The Perth Mint, in Western Australia, is now one of the world’s main producers of this type of currency. These coins are not in general circulation but are hoarded by collectors. Additionally, about one quarter of all the gold ever mined has been transformed into gold ingots—solid blocks of tangible wealth—and locked away in bank vaults. The United States holds most of the world’s gold bullion in its bank vaults.
Currently, about 80 percent of the gold mined each year—some 1,600 tons—is crafted into jewelry. The United States may have the most gold in its banks, but when jewelry is included in the count, India has the largest quantity of gold within its boundaries. In addition to being valuable and beautiful, this soft metal possesses attributes that make it suitable for hard work.
An Ancient Metal With Modern Applications
The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt likely recognized that gold is resistant to corrosion and thus used it in fashioning their death masks. Testifying to gold’s durability, when archaeologists uncovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen thousands of years after his death, the young king’s golden death mask was found to be untarnished and still a lustrous yellow color.
Gold retains its luster because water and air—the destroyers of other metals, such as iron—don’t affect it. This resistance to corrosion combined with gold’s outstanding ability to conduct electricity makes it ideal for use in electronic components. Each year about 200 tons of gold goes into the manufacture of TVs, VCRs, cell phones, and some 50 million computers. In addition, high-quality compact discs contain a thin layer of durable gold to ensure dependable data storage.
Thin films of gold display some unusual characteristics. Consider the metal’s interaction with light. When processed into ultra-thin sheets, gold becomes transparent. At this thickness, it allows green light waves to pass through but reflects infrared light. Windows coated with gold admit light but reflect heat. Thus, the cockpit windows of modern aircraft are coated with gold, as are the windows of many new office buildings. Also, nontransparent gold foil is wrapped around the vulnerable parts of space vehicles, effectively protecting them from intense radiation and heat.
Gold is also highly resistant to bacteria. Hence, dentists use it to repair or replace damaged or decayed teeth. In recent years gold has proved to be an ideal material for use in surgical implants such as stents—little wire tubes inserted inside the body to reinforce damaged veins or arteries.
Given gold’s versatility, value, and beauty, prospectors will no doubt continue to scour the earth for this appealing metal.
a Gold is so dense that a cube of the metal measuring just one foot three inches [37 cm] on all sides would weigh about a ton.
[Box on page 25]
Where Is Gold Found?
◼ Rocks: Gold is present in tiny quantities in all igneous rocks. Some patches of rock contain a high enough concentration of gold to make it worthwhile for companies to mine, crush, and chemically leach the metal from the ore. High-quality ore contains only about one ounce [30 g] of gold per ton of rock.
◼ Reefs: On rare occasions gold is found in sheets or veins wedged between layers of quartz. This is known as reef gold.
◼ Rivers: Over time, gold-bearing reefs that become exposed to sun, rain, and wind break down, releasing trapped gold, which then accumulates in creeks and rivers as tiny specks or flakes. In this form it is known as alluvial gold.
◼ Earth’s Surface: Odd-shaped clumps of gold that seem to form at random in the earth’s surface are known as nuggets. These clumps can sometimes reach spectacular sizes. The largest gold nugget ever found in Australia was called The Welcome Stranger, and it weighed about 150 pounds [70 kg]! It was discovered in 1869 in the Australian state of Victoria. Australia is the home of big nuggets, having yielded 23 of the 25 biggest nuggets ever discovered. Today gold nuggets, which can be as small as a match head, are more rare than gem-quality diamonds.
[Box/Picture on page 27]
How Does a Metal Detector Work?
The key components in a metal detector are usually two coils of wire. Electricity is passed through one of the coils, generating a magnetic field. If the metal detector passes over a metal object, such as a gold nugget, it induces a weak magnetic field in that object. The second coil on the metal detector picks up this weak field and signals the operator by means of a light, a gauge, or a sound.
[Pictures on page 25]
Gold boom of the mid-1800’s:
1. Sutter’s Mill, California, U.S.A.
2. Bendigo Creek, Victoria, Australia
3. Golden Point, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
1: Library of Congress; 2: Gold Museum, Ballarat; 3: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
[Pictures on page 26]
Modern Applications of Gold
High-quality compact discs contain a thin layer of gold
Gold foil is used on space vehicles
Gold is used on microchips
Gold-plated wires have an outstanding ability to conduct electricity
Courtesy Tanaka Denshi Kogyo
[Picture on page 26]
The world’s deepest opencut gold mine, in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia
Courtesy Newmont Mining Corporation
[Picture Credit Line on page 24]
Brasil Gemas, Ouro Preto, MG