The Surprisingly Interesting History of Brass

brass fittingsYou’ve probably heard of the Bronze Age and Iron Age, but there was no Brass Age. That doesn’t mean, however, that brass hasn’t been an important metal throughout history. What are the beginnings of this alloy, made of approximately 67% copper and 33% zinc, and now used to make brass fittings? Here’s a brief history:

Early Versions of Brass
Early brass alloys have been found in China (dating from the 5th millennium BCE), Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean (3rd millennium BCE), and India and the Middle East (2nd millennium BCE). Unsurprisingly, these alloys were rarely just copper and zinc, and had lower amounts of zinc than modern brass does. While some of these may have been intentionally smelted, it’s also possible that many early combinations were accidental.

Brass and the Roman Empire
It was through the influence of the Roman Empire that the popularity of brass spread. By around the 100 BCE, brass was used widely for making coins, and was produced by a more consistent process called cementation (heating the two metals together until zinc vapor reacted with the copper). By around 300 CE, brass made up around 40% of all copper alloys used in the Roman world.

Medieval Brass-Making
Disruption during the Medieval period makes it difficult to know exactly what happened in terms of brass developments in the West. But it is known that certain areas, such as Scotland and Northumbria, continued to produce brass in Western Europe. Brass production was also widespread in the Islamic world, preserving the technology.

Brass African Art
Though many famous pieces of African art are described as “bronzes,” quite a few are made of brass. The Ife Head, for example, is made of brass with a large amount of lead added (today, lead is sometimes added to brass at a concentration of about 2%, which is why lead free brass fittings have been developed for use in potable water systems).

The Renaissance of Brass
The Renaissance in Europe marked important technological innovations for brass, including new techniques for making it. Speltering and then distillation processes allowed brass to be produced on a mass scale, and brass became an important engineering metal in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Brass in the Modern World
So why is this alloy, used for at least 7,000 years, still relevant today? Though there have been a few changes made to how brass is made and used — today, for example, about 90% of brass is recycled — it holds much of the same appeal as it did for people thousands of years ago. It’s used for decorative purposes because of its shiny gold-like appearance. And it’s used in practical applications like brass fittings because it’s both workable and durable; that’s the same rare combination that makes it an ideal choice for some musical instruments. Few other alloys offer so many advantages.

How else is brass used, and why? Join the discussion in the comments.