Using the word "minerals" in its broadest sense, Fifty Minerals that Changed the Course of History features the metals, alloys, rocks, organic minerals, and gemstones that humans have used as the building blocks of their material cultures. Fifty Minerals That Changed the Course of History opens with the materials that defined the earliest stages of human development: the flint and obsidian of the Stone Age; and the metals, bronze and iron, that have given their names to the two subsequent historical phases. The roots of industry are explored in clay, and of trade in salt.
The great classical civilizations of the Old and New Worlds created extraordinary works of civic, funerary, and religious art in gold, silver, ivory, jade, alabaster, and marble that have not since been equaled, while their rulers adorned themselves with precious and semi-precious gems, such as pearls made of nacre and diamonds. In the Middle Ages Europeans discovered the explosive uses of sulfur and saltpeter – a combination known to us as gunpowder, long known to the Chinese.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, coal became the principal industrial fuel, and once rare materials, such as steel, became commonplace. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, coal made way for petroleum, and later uranium, and plutonium, and industry exploited new minerals, including tungsten, titanium, and aluminum. Although mostly beneficial to the technological progress of humanity, the uses of several minerals including lead, arsenic, and asbestos have had more sinister effects. In order to justify the assertion that they literally changed the course of history, each mineral is judged by its influence in four categories: "Cultural" (minerals that have an artistic, social, and religious significance), "Scientific" (minerals have been important in the development of science), "Commercial" (minerals used for trade), and "Practical" (minerals used for transportation, construction, and industry).
Eric Chaline is a professional journalist and writer specializing in history, philosophy, and religion. A graduate of Cambridge University and The School of African and Oriental Studies, London, he lived in Tokyo for seven years where he was English-language editor for Kodansha Publishers. More recently, he has published titles on philosophy, including The Book of Zen and The Book of Gods, and on history, including Traveler's Guide to the Ancient World: Ancient Greece, History's Worst Inventions, History's Greatest Deceptions, and History's Worst Predictions. He now lives and works in London, where he is conducting doctoral research in sociology at South Bank University.