Nickel - History


Because the ores of nickel are easily mistaken for ores of silver, understanding of this metal and its use dates to relatively recent times. However, the unintentional use of nickel is ancient, and can be traced back as far as 3500 BC. Bronzes from what is now Syria had contained up to 2% nickel. Further, there are Chinese manuscripts suggesting that "white copper" (cupronickel, known as baitong) was used there between 1700 and 1400 BC. This Paktong white copper was exported to Britain as early as the 17th century, but the nickel content of this alloy was not discovered until 1822.

In medieval Germany, a red mineral was found in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) that resembled copper ore. However, when miners were unable to extract any copper from it, they blamed a mischievous sprite of German mythology, Nickel (similar to Old Nick), for besetting the copper. They called this ore Kupfernickel from the German Kupfer for copper. This ore is now known to be nickeline or niccolite, a nickel arsenide. In 1751, Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstedt was trying to extract copper from kupfernickel—and instead produced a white metal that he named after the spirit that had given its name to the mineral, nickel. In modern German, Kupfernickel or Kupfer-Nickel designates the alloy cupronickel.

After its discovery, the only source for nickel was the rare Kupfernickel but, from 1824 on, the nickel was obtained as a byproduct of cobalt blue production. The first large-scale producer of nickel was Norway, which exploited nickel-rich pyrrhotite from 1848 on. The introduction of nickel in steel production in 1889 increased the demand for nickel, and the nickel deposits of New Caledonia, which were discovered in 1865, provided most of the world's supply between 1875 and 1915. The discovery of the large deposits in the Sudbury Basin, Canada in 1883, in Norilsk-Talnakh, Russia in 1920, and in the Merensky Reef, South Africa in 1924 made large-scale production of nickel possible.

Nickel has been a component of coins since the mid-19th century. In the United States, the term "nickel" or "nick" originally applied to the copper-nickel Flying Eagle cent, which replaced copper with 12% nickel 1857–58, then the Indian Head cent of the same alloy from 1859–1864. Still later in 1865, the term designated the three-cent nickel, with nickel increased to 25%. In 1866, the five-cent shield nickel (25% nickel, 75% copper) appropriated the designation. Along with the alloy proportion, this term has been used to the present in the United States. Coins of nearly pure nickel were first used in 1881 in Switzerland, and more notably 99.9% nickel five-cent coins were struck in Canada (the world's largest nickel producer at the time) during non-war years from 1922–1981, and their metal content made these coins magnetic. During the wartime period 1942–45, more or all nickel was removed from Canadian and U.S. coins, due to nickel's war-critical use in armor. Canada switched alloys again to plated steel during the Korean war, but was forced to stop making pure nickel "nickels" in 1981, reserving the pure 99.9% nickel alloy after 1968 only to its higher-value coins. Finally, in the 21st century, with rising nickel prices, most countries that formerly used nickel in their coins have abandoned the metal for cost reasons, and the U.S. five cents remains one of the few coins that still uses the metal for other than exterior plating.

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