Friday, January 29, 2010

The underestimated role of brass in western contemporary world

A minimal history

After the Copper Age came the Bronze Age, followed later by the Iron Age. There was no 'Brass Age' because, for many years, it was not easy to make brass.
Only in the last millennium has brass been appreciated as an engineering alloy. Whilst pre-dynastic Egyptians knew copper very well (in hieroglyphs copper was represented by the ankh symbol 'C' also used to denote eternal life), the use of brass was very uncommon, except where its dark yellowish colour was required. 
Several Roman writers then refer to brass, calling it 'Aurichalum'. It was used for the production of coins and helmets.
In medieval times brass was popular for church monuments, thin plates being let in to stone floors and inscribed to commemorate the dead.
In Shakespearean times, because of its ease of manufacture, machining and corrosion resistance, brass became the standard alloy from which were made all accurate devices such as clocks, watches and navigational instruments. 
With the coming of the industrial revolution, the production of brass became even more important.
Even today, brass is usually the first-choice material for many of the components for equipment made in the precision engineering industries. It is indispensable where a long, cost-effective service life is required. This combination is matched by no other material.

Transitional considerations

Since the appearance of brass on the planet, it always has been associated to beauty, strength, magic and power. Even during the industrial revolution, its use in high precision environments has been deeply intermixed with an artistic view of technology, something we started to lose at the beginning of the 20th century. Technology has gradually become something so unrelated to art to be antagonistic to it. Such a shame.

Modern times

With the advent of new technologies, new materials, new needs in the everyday life, brass objects have been more or less discontinued, or hidden. The transition has been so smooth no one noticed its disappearance.
Look around you, and try to find a brass object, or something brass-coloured.
In a common house or office, you will find none. None at all.

If you eventually find something, probably it will be in one of these categories:

1) Door handles - those devices you use to open the Magical Gates to The World (or to Your Home).

2) Name plates - those Little Gadgets Silently Telling Your Name To Strangers

3) Artsy thingies - those Undefinable Contraptions that Make You Feel Warm And Fuzzy Inside

4) Nautical 'anything' - Everything you can find on a Floating Machine Made To Cross Perilous Waters During Adventurous Voyages

Got the point?

If yes, this will become a viral thought. Suddenly, there will be a gaping hole in your life of which you were hitherto unaware [cfr. 2dGoggles...]. You will start to search brass everywhere, at first simply because it is SO strange that a whole colour and/or material has been (almost) removed from our world, then because you will become addicted to the warm glow it emanates.

[As a side effect of its removal, little reproductions of monuments once cast in brass now are made of synthetic materials, wood, or marble. If you take in your hands a brass object (let's use as a casual example something like a souvenir of Milan) it inspires strength, determination, will. It is solid, sincere. You feel you can do great things with it. On the other side, if the same object is made of a less noble material, it inspires weakness and a feeling of impending failure. <giggle>]



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