Chap. vii. What Iron is, and of what substance, and its uses.
or that now we have declared the origin and nature of the loadstone, we think it necessary first to add a history of iron and to indicate the hitherto unknown forces of iron, before this our discourse goes on to the explanation of magnetick difficulties and demonstrations, and to deal with the coitions and harmonies of loadstone with iron. Iron is by all reckoned in the class of metals, and is a metal livid in colour, very hard, glows red-hot before it melts, being most difficult of fusion, is beaten out under the hammer, and is very resonant. Chemists say that if a bed of fixed earthy sulphur be combined with fixed earthy quicksilver, and the two together are neither pure white but of a livid whiteness, if the sulphur prevail, iron is formed. For these stern masters of metals who by many inventions twisting them about, pound, calcine, dissolve, sublime, and precipitate, decide that this metal, both on account of the earthy sulphur and of the earthy mercury, is more truly a son of the earth than any other; they do not even think gold or silver, lead, tin, or copper itself so earthy; for that reason it is not smelted except in the hottest furnaces, with bellows; and when thus fused, on having again grown hard it is not melted again without heavy labour; but its slag with the utmost difficulty. It is the hardest of metals, subduing and breaking all things, by reason of the strong concretion of the more earthy matter. Wherefore we shall better understand what iron is, when we shall declare what are the causes and substance of metals, in a different way from those who before our time have considered them. Aristotle takes the material of the metals to be vapour. The chemists in chorus pronounce their actual elements to be sulphur and quicksilver. Gilgil Mauritanus gives it as ashes moistened with water. Georgius Agricola makes it out to be water and earth mixed; nor, to be sure, is there any difference between his opinion and the position taken by Mauritanus. But ours is that metals arise and effloresce at the summits of the earth’s globe, being distinguished each by its own form, like some of the other substances dug out of it, and all bodies around us. The earth’s globe does not consist of ashes or inert dust. Nor is fresh water an element, but a more simple consistency of evaporated fluids of the earth. Unctuous bodies, fresh water devoid of properties, quicksilver and sulphur, none of these are principia of metals: these latter, things are the results of a different nature, they are neither constant nor antecedent in the course of the generation of metals. The earth emits various humours, not begotten of water nor of dry earth, nor from mixtures of these, but from the substance of the earth itself: these humours are not distinguished by contrary qualities or substance, nor is the earth a simple substance, as the Peripateticks dream. The humours proceed from vapours sublimated from great depths; all waters are extracts and, as it were, exudations from the earth. Rightly then in some measure does Aristotle make out the matter of metals to be that exhalation which in continuance thickens in the lodes of certain soils: for the vapours are condensed in places which are less hot than the spot whence they issued, and by help of the nature of the soils and mountains, as in a womb, they are at fitting seasons congealed and changed into metals: but it is not they alone which form ores, but they flow into and enter a more solid material, and so form metals. So when this concreted matter has settled down in more temperate beds, it begins to take shape in those tepid places, just as seed in the warm womb, or as the embryo acquires growth: sometimes the vapour conjoins with suitable matter alone: hence some metals are occasionally though rarely dug up native, and come into existence perfect without smelting: but other vapours which are mixed with alien soils require smelting in the way that the ores of all metals are treated, which are rid of all their dross by the force of fires, and being fused flow out metallick, and are separated from earthy impurities but not from the true substance of the earth. But in so far as that it becomes gold, or silver, or copper, or any other of the existing metals, this does not happen from the quantity or proportion of material, nor from any forces of matter, as the Chemists fondly imagine; but when the beds and region concur fitly with the material, the metals assume forms from the universal nature by which they are perfected; in the same manner as all the other minerals, plants, and animals whatever: otherwise the species of metals would be vague and undefined, which are even now turned up in such scanty numbers that scarce ten kinds are known. Why, however, nature has been so stingy as regards the number of metals, or why there should be as many as are known to man, it is not easy to explain; though the simple-minded and raving Astrologers refer the metals each to its own planet. But there is no agreement of the metals with the planets, nor of the planets with the metals, either in numbers or in properties. For what connexion is there of iron with Mars? unless it be that from the former numerous instruments, particularly swords and engines of war, are fashioned. What has copper to do with Venus? or how does tin, or how does spelter correspond with Jupiter? They should rather be dedicated to Venus. But this is old wives’ talk. Vapour is then a remote cause in the generation of the metals; the fluid condensed from vapours is a more proximate one, like the blood and semen in the generation of animals. But those vapours and juices from vapours pass for the most part into bodies and change them into marcasites and are carried into lodes (for we have numerous cases of wood so transmuted), the fitting matrices of bodies, where they are formed as metals. They enter most often into the truer and more homogeneal substance of the globe, and in the process of time a vein of iron results; loadstone is also produced, which is nought else than a noble kind of iron ore: and for this reason, and on account of its substance being singular, alien from all other metals, nature very rarely, if ever, mixes with iron any other metal, while the other metals are very often minutely mixed, and are produced together. Now when that vapour or those juices happen to meet, in fitting matrices, with efflorescences deformed from the earth’s homogenic substance, and with divers precipitates (the forms working thereto), the remainder of the metals are generated (a specifick nature affecting the properties in that place). For the hidden primordial elements of metals and stones lie concealed in the earth, as those of herbs and plants do in its outer crust. For the soil dug out of a deep well, where would seem to be no suspicion of a conception of seed, when placed on a very high tower, produces, by the incubation of sun and sky, green herbage and unbidden weeds; and those of the kind which grow spontaneously in that region, for each region produces its own herbs and plants, also its own metals.
70Here corn exults, and there the grape is glad,
Here trees and grass unbidden verdure add.
So mark how Tmolus yields his saffrone store,
But ivory is the gift of Indian shore;
With incense soft the softer Shebans deal;
The stark Chalybeans’ element is steel:
With acrid castor reek the Pontic wares,
Epirus wins the palm of Elian mares.
70 Page 21, line 24. Page 21, line 25. Hic segetes, &c.— The English version of these lines from Vergil’s Georgics, Book I., is by the late Mr. R. D. Blackmore.
But what the Chemists (as Geber, and others) call fixed earthy sulphur in iron is nothing else than the homogenic earth-substance concreted by its own humour, amalgamated with a double fluid: a metallick humour is inserted along with a small quantity of the substance of the earth not devoid of humour. Wherefore the common saying that in gold there is pure earth, but in iron mostly impure, is wrong; as though there were indeed such a thing as natural earth, and that the globe itself were (by some unknown process of refining) depurate. In iron, especially in the best iron, there is earth in its own nature true and genuine; in the other metals there is not so much earth as that in place of earth and precipitates there are consolidated and (so to speak) fixed salts, which are efflorescences of the globe, and which differ also greatly in firmness and consistency: In the mines their force rises up along with a twofold humour from the exhalations, they solidify in the underground spaces into metallic veins: so too they are also connate by virtue of their place and of the surrounding bodies, in natural matrices, and take on their specific forms. Of the various constitutions of loadstones and their diverse substances, colours, and virtues, mention has been made before: but, now having stated the cause and origin of metals, we have to examine ferruginous matter not as it is in the smelted metal, but as that from which the metal is refined. Quasi-pure iron is found of its proper colour and in its own lodes; still, not as it will presently be, nor as adapted for its various uses. It is sometimes dug up covered with white silex or with other stones. It is often the same in river sand, as in Noricum. A nearly pure ore of iron is now often dug up in Ireland, which the smiths, without the labours of furnaces, hammer out in the smithy into iron implements. In France iron is very commonly smelted out of a liver-coloured stone, in which are glittering scales; the same kind71 without the scales is found in England, which also they use for craftsmen’s ruddle72. In Sussex in England73 is a rich dusky ore and also one of a pale ashen hue, both of which on being dried for a time, or kept in moderate fires, presently acquire a liver-colour; here also is found a dusky ore square-shaped with a black rind of greater hardness. An ore having the appearance of liver is often variously intermingled with other stones: as also with the perfect loadstone which yields the best of iron. There is also a rusty ore of iron, one of a leaden hue tending to black, one quite black, or black mixed with true cobalt: there is another sort mixed either with pyrites, or with sterile plumbago. One kind is also like jet, another like bloodstone. The emery used by armourers, and by glaziers for glass-cutting, called amongst the English Emerelstone, by the Germans Smeargel, is ferruginous; albeit iron is extracted from it with difficulty, yet it attracts the versorium. It is now and then found in deep iron and silver diggings. Thomas Erastus says he had heard from a certain learned man of iron ores, of the colour of iron, but quite soft and fatty, which can be smoothed with the fingers like butter, out of which excellent iron can be smelted: somewhat the same we have seen found in England, having the aspect of Spanish soap. Besides the numberless kinds of stony ores, iron is extracted from clay, from clayey earth, from ochre, from a rusty matter deposited from chalybeate waters; In England iron is copiously extracted in furnaces often from sandy and clayey stones which appear to contain iron not more than sand, marl, or any other clay soils contain it. Thus in Aristotle’s book De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus74, “There is said” (he states) “to be a peculiar formation of Chalybean and Misenian iron, for instance the sort collected from river gravel; some say that after being simply washed it is smelted in the furnace; others declare that it and the sediment which subsides after several washings are cast in and purified together by the fire; with the addition of the stone pyrimachus which is found there in abundance.” Thus do numerous sorts of things contain in their various substances notably and abundantly this element of iron and earth. However, there are many stones, and very common ones, found in every soil, also earths, and various and mixed materials, which do not hold rich substances, but yet have their own iron elements, and yield them to skilfully-made fires, yet which are left aside by metallick men because they are less profitable; while other soils give some show of a ferruginous nature, yet (being very barren) are hardly ever smelted down into iron; and being neglected are not generally known. Manufactured irons differ very greatly amongst themselves. For one kind is tenacious in its nature, and this is the best; one is of medium quality: another is brittle, and this is the worst. Sometimes the iron, by reason of the excellency of the ore, is wrought into steel, as to-day in Noricum. From the finest iron, too, well wrought and purged from all dross, or by being plunged in water after heating, there issues what the Greeks call στόμωμα; the Latins acies; others aciarium, such as was at times called Syrian, Parthian, Noric, Comese, Spanish; elsewhere it is named from the water in which it is so often plunged, as at Como in Italy75, Bambola and Tarazona in Spain. Acies fetches a much larger price than mere iron. And owing to its superiority it better accords with the loadstone, from which more powerful quality it is often smelted, and it acquires the virtues from it more quickly, retains them longer at their full, and in the best condition for magnetical experiments. After iron has been smelted in the first furnaces, it is afterward wrought by various arts in large worksteads or mills, the metal acquiring consistency when hammered with ponderous blows, and throwing off the dross. After the first smelting it is rather brittle and by no means perfect. Wherefore with us (English) when the larger military guns are cast, they purify the metal from dross more fully, so that they may be stronger to withstand the force of the firing; and they do this by making it pass again (in a fluid state) through a chink, by which process it sheds its recremental matter. Smiths render iron sheets tougher with certain liquids, and by blows of the hammer, and from them make shields and breastplates that defy the blows of battle-axes. Iron becomes harder through skill and proper tempering, but also by skill turns out in a softer condition and as pliable as lead. It is made hard by the action of certain waters into which while glowing it is plunged, as at Bambola and Tarazona in Spain: It grows soft again, either by the effect of fire alone, when without hammering and without water, it is left to cool by itself; or by that of grease into which it is plunged; or (that it may the better serve for various trades) it is tempered variously by being skilfully besmeared. Baptista Porta expounds this art in book 13 of his Magia Naturalis. Thus this ferric and telluric nature is included and taken up in various bodies of stones, ores, and earths; so too it differs in aspect, in form, and in efficiency. Art smelts it by various processes, improves it, and turns it, above all material substances, to the service of man in trades and appliances without end. One kind of iron is adapted for breastplates, another serves as a defence against shot, another protects against swords and curved blades (commonly called scimitars), another is used for making swords, another for horseshoes. From iron are made nails, hinges, bolts, saws, keys, grids, doors, folding-doors, spades, rods, pitchforks, hooks, barbs, tridents, pots, tripods, anvils, hammers, wedges, chains, hand-cuffs, fetters, hoes, mattocks, sickles, baskets, shovels, harrows, planes, rakes, ploughshares, forks, pans, dishes, ladles, spoons, spits, knives, daggers, swords, axes, darts, javelins, lances, spears, anchors, and much ship’s gear. Besides these, balls, darts, pikes, breastplates, helmets, cuirasses, horseshoes, greaves, wire, strings of musical instruments, chairs, portcullises, bows, catapults, and (pests of human kind) cannon, muskets, and cannon-balls, with endless instruments unknown to the Latins: which things I have rehearsed in order that it may be understood how great is the use of iron, which surpasses a hundred times that of all the other metals; and is day by day being wrought by metal-workers whose stithies are found in almost every village. For this is the foremost of metals, subserving many and the greatest needs of man, and abounds in the earth above all other metals, and is predominant. Wherefore those Chemists are fools76 who think that nature’s will is to perfect all metals into gold; she might as well be making ready to change all stones to diamonds, since diamond surpasses all in splendour and hardness, because gold excels in splendour, gravity, and density, being invincible against all deterioration. Iron as dug up is therefore, like iron that has been smelted, a metal, differing a little indeed from the primary homogenic terrestrial body, owing to the metallick humour it has imbibed; yet not so alien as that it will not, after the manner of refined matter, admit largely of the magnetick forces, and may be associated with that prepotent form belonging to the earth, and yield to it a due submission.
71 Page 22, line 18. Page 22, line 19. quale, altered in ink in the folio text to qualis. The editions of 1628 and 1633 both read qualis.
72 Page 22, line 19. Page 22, line 20. rubrica fabrili: in English ruddle or reddle. See “Sir” John Hill, A General Natural History, 1748, p. 47. In the De Re Metallica of Entzelt (Encelius), Frankfurt, 1551, p. 134, is a paragraph headed De Rubrica Fabrili, as follows: “Rubrica fabrilis duplex est. à Germanis añt utraque dicitur rottel, röttelstein, wie die zimmerleüt vnd steynmetzen brauchen. à Græcis μίλτος τεκτονική. Est enim alia nativa, alia factitia. Natiua à Germanis propriè dicitur berckrottel. haec apud nos est fossilis. . . . Porro factitia est rubrica fabrilis, à Germanis braunrottel, quæ fit ex ochra usta, ut Theophrastus et Dioscorides testantur.”
73 Page 22, line 19. Page 22, line 20. In Sussexia Angliæ.— In Camden’s Britannia (1580) we read concerning the iron industry in the villages in Sussex: “They are full of iron mines in sundry places, where, for the making and founding thereof, there be furnaces on every side; and a huge deal of wood is yearly burnt. The heavy forge-hammers, worked by water-power, stored in hammer-ponds, ceaselessly beating upon the iron, fill the neighbourhood round about, day and night, with continual noise.”
74 Page 23, line 1. Page 22, line 44. in libro Aristotelis de admirandis narrationibus.— The reference is to the work usually known as the De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus, Cap. XLVIII.: “Fertur autem peculiarissima generatio esse ferri Chalybici Amisenique, ut quod ex sabulo quod a fluviis defertur, ut perhibent certe, conflatur. Alii simpliciter lotum in fornace excoqui, alii vero, quod ex lotura subsedit, frequentius lotum comburi tradunt adjecto simul et pyrimacho dicto lapide, qui in ista regio plurimus reperiri fertur.” (Ed. Didot, vol. ii., p. 87.) According to Georgius Agricola, the stone pyrimachus is simply iron pyrites.
75 Page 23, line 22. Page 23, line 23. vt in Italia Comi, &c. — This is mostly taken from Pliny. Compare the following passage from Philemon Holland’s translation (1601), p. 514:
“But the most varietie of yron commeth by the meanes of the water, wherein the yron red-hot is eftsoones dipped and quenched for to be hardened. And verely, water only which in some place is better, in other worse, is that which hath ennobled many places for the excellent yron that commeth from them, as namely, Bilbilis in Spaine, and Tarassio, Comus also in Italie; for none of these places have any yron mines of their owne, and yet there is no talke but of the yron and steele that commeth from thence.”
Bilbilis is Bambola, and Tariassona the Tarazona of modern Spain.
76 Page 24, line 28. Page 24, line 27. Quare vani sunt illi Chemici.— Gilbert had no faith in the alchemists. On pp. 19 and 21 he had poked fun at them for declaring the metals to be constituted of sulphur and quicksilver, and for pronouncing the fixed earth in iron to be sulphur. On p. 20 he had denied their proposition that the differences between silver, gold, and copper could arise from proportions of their constituent materials; and he likewise denounced unsparingly the supposed relation between the seven metals and the seven planets. He now denounces the vain dreams of turning all metals into gold, and all stones into diamonds. Later he rejects as absurd the magnetic curing of wounds. His detachment from the pseudo-science of his age was unique if not complete.
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