December 13 – Anniversary of a Prophecy by Dickens

Posted on December 13, 2013

Charles Dickens is well known as the author who wrote such famous novels as Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and David Copperfield. However, he wrote lots more than novels, including plays, short stories, and non-fiction.

One bit of Dickens's writing I discovered recently is Household Words: A Weekly Journal. The journal, which was published for almost a decade, was edited by Dickens, but he wrote a great deal of it, too.

Here is what he published on this date in 1856:
What do you think of a metal as white as silver, as unalterable as gold, as easily melted as copper, as tough as iron; which is malleable, ductile, and with the singular quality of being lighter than glass? Such a metal does exist, and that in considerable quantities on the surface of the globe.”
Do you know what metal Dickens is describing?

It turns out that it's (drumroll, please) aluminum.

Although aluminum is the third most abundant element in the earth's crust, it is the most recently discovered element in common use, and it wasn't until 1854 that people learned how to produce items with it! 

(Remember, people started using iron, gold, silver, and copper thousands of years ago, compared to a mere 160 years ago for aluminum!)

Dickens went on to say that aluminum may become more and more useful in households, because of its light weight. He wrote: “It may probably send tin to the right-about-face, drive copper saucepans into penal servitude, and blow up German-silver sky-high into nothing. Henceforth, respectable babies will be born with aluminium spoons in their mouths.”

(German silver is a mix of metals: copper, nickel, and often zinc. It used to be used a lot more in the past than it is now. And Dickens's guess about aluminum bumping tin and copper into less use is right-on as well. Spoons, like other Western cutlery, are generally made from stainless steel, nowadays, BUT we still say that rich kids are born with silver—not aluminum—spoons in their mouths!)

Aluminium or aluminum?

I don't know if you noticed that my Dickens quote said aluminium, while I've been saying aluminum? The metallic element is spelled differently, with an extra “i,” in addition to being pronounced differently, in Britain and other English-speaking locales than it is in Canada and the U.S. Dickens lived in England, therefore he used aluminium; I live in the U.S., thus my spell check program and I use aluminum.

By the way, Dickens thought the metal's name was too much of a mouthful, and he suggested that a shorter name be adopted if the metal were to have any success in being used. I'm glad to see that we North Americans, at least, took his advice and made the name one syllable shorter!

Also on this date:

Saint Lucia Day in Scandinavian countries 

Anniversary of Tasman's “discovery” of New Zealand 

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