According to recent statistics, zinc is the third most commonly used nonferrous metal in the United States. This unassuming metal was among the first minerals exploited by Man, used as a decorative material for thousands of years, although it never achieved the fame and notoriety of other metals such as gold or silver. In more recent times, new extraction and processing methods have allowed Man to produce higher-quality zinc than ever before, and to use it in an astonishingly high number of chemical and high-tech applications.
The term “zinc” was not in use until the 16th century, at the earliest. The ancient Greeks called it “pseudargyras,” meaning “false silver,” and made very little use of it (Mathewson 1). The unassuming bluish-gray mineral was given a warmer welcome by the Romans, who were already using it to make brass by “about the time of Augustus, 20BC to 14AD”; the Romans used, not purified zinc, but the mineral calamine (“zincky wall accretions” from caves) and fused them in a crucible with bits of copper to make their brass (Mathewson 1). Around the world, zinc was being exploited by the Chinese civilization as well, although documentation of Asian use of zinc does not come until the 7th century of AD, from Kazwiui, the “Pliny of the Orient.” Kazwiui, “who died in 630AD, stated that the Chinese knew how to render the metal malleable and used it to make small coins and mirrors” (Mathewson 2). The discovery and use of zinc, then, was widespread in ancient times and through the Middle Ages. However, it seems that it had not yet been used for anything much more practical than a mirror, a fact that would very quickly change in the 18th and 19th centuries as higher-grade zinc became available and new applications presented themselves.
One of the most common applications of zinc in its early days was as a component in roofing. A report was presented to the Institute of British Architects in 1860 that revealed “that nearly every roof laid in Paris during the previous fifteen years had been covered in zinc, and this included famous buildings such as the Louvre and the Hotel de Ville” (Porter 73). The report was presented because British architects feared that they would lose technological pace with architects from the European mainland if they did not learn to take advantage of this valuable resource, which became increasingly fashionable.