29. Copper: Wires Crossed

We get lost in the woods with a couple of little guys in today’s episode, and learn about a lesser-known American Civil War.

Featured above: Douglass Houghton, Detroit’s “Little Doctor” and mayor, as well as Michigan’s first official State Geologist, pictured with his faithful water spaniel, Meeme.

Show Notes

I Like You Guys, Too: I was flattered to see that The A.V. Club included ETE’s previous episode, Nickel, in its latest Podmass roundup of recommended podcasts. Many thanks to Zach Brooke and everyone else at that great website!

Scientific Progress: I performed some cosmetic updates to the podcast’s episode archive. It’s a little spiffier now and should look good on a wider variety of screens, too. Please let me know if it looks like junk on yours, though!

But What About “The Fuzz”: “Cop,” meaning a police officer, is one of those words that has a very murky history. Some common explanations include that it started out as an abbreviation of “Constable On Patrol,” or perhaps as a shortened version of “Copper,” because their badges were made of.

Acronym-based etymologies are surprisingly rare until the mid-twentieth century, so that one’s out. It seems that the word might very well be an abbreviation of “copper,” but not because of anything to do with element 29.

The consensus these days seems to be that scoundrels and roustabouts in 19th-century England used to call the police “coppers” because they would “cop” people — as in, snatch ’em. That’s the same as the word “caper,” and comes from the Latin, “capere” (and the Proto-Indic-European “kap-,” “to grasp,” before that).

It’s Just Kinda Neat: I like to use any excuse to post a video from Veritasium, and I was reminded of this one, where Dr. Muller demonstrates how a magnet and copper pipe can induce electromagnetic eddies:

Cut For Time: This already wound up being one of the show’s longer episodes, so I wound up having to cut a little more information on copper’s antiseptic properties:

Copper has many appealing qualities, from its high conductivity and ductility to its uniquely warm color among the elements. But one of its more surprising traits is its ability to act as an antiseptic.

On the microscopic level, copper acts kind of like a superhero. When bacteria and similar vectors of disease encounter a copper surface, they get absolutely walloped. Copper ions suffocate the germ and then tear it to shreds. And it’s pretty hard for them to develop any kind of resistance to copper, like how mosquitoes developed a resistance to DDT in episode 17, because copper ravages the DNA inside their cells, too.

Early humans didn’t have any clue about how any of this worked, but they sure knew that it did work. At least as far back as 2200 BCE, Egyptians were using copper to sterilize wounds and drinking water, and they weren’t the only ones. Ancient Aztecs, Greeks, and Mongolians had all caught on to element 29’s antiseptic properties.

Even as recently as 1883, Parisian doctors noticed that during outbreaks of typhoid and cholera, those who toiled in the copper mines seemed especially resilient to disease. But by this armchair historian’s account, the most impressive medical application of copper also happens to be an an archaeologically unique one.

Mythbusting: Apparently, for a while, there was a theory floating around that the people who mined the Upper Peninsula’s copper 7,000+ years ago might have been Viking explorers from Scandinavia, or even Phoenician sailors who somehow found their way to North America. There was more than a shred of casual academic racism at play here, largely from white professors who simply couldn’t believe that the indigenous population of America could possibly have figured anything out before Europeans did. This article transcribed from a 1995 issue of The Michigan Archaeologist exhaustively clears up some of those rather absurd myths.

It is true that the original civilization to perform mining operations in (what we know as) Michigan’s Upper Peninsula were not the Ojibwe people who were there by the time the French and English showed up. The Ojibwe simply showed up later and also had no idea who had done all that work. The Ojibwe’s mines weren’t as sophisticated as their precursors’, but they certainly did a better job of it than Alexander Henry.

Peninsulas Within Peninsulas: A few times in the episode I mentioned the Keweenaw Peninsula, and I mentioned the Upper Peninsula, but the two are not interchangeable. The Upper Peninsula is the whole shebang up there, the big piece of land surrounded by water on three sides that is not shaped like a mitten. The Keweenaw Peninsula is a smaller piece of land surrounded by water on three sides on the north edge of the Upper Peninsula. It makes sense if you look:

The Keweenaw Peninsula is circled in red.

Copper Country: Friend of the show and occasional music contributor Josh Crowley is a native of the Keweenaw Peninsula, and the last time he visited, he very generously picked up a sample of element 29 from Copper World. But if you don’t happen to be heading up that way anytime soon, I’m pretty sure they’ll happily ship to your address, too.

My dad also spent some of his childhood in the Upper Peninsula and has told me that when he was young, the copper was still so abundant up there that you could occasionally find a piece just lying on the ground!

Still Popular: Hougton is everywhere in the U.P., still, even though he never lived up there except when conducting his expeditions. One of the larger cities in the U.P., and home to Michigan Tech University, is named Houghton, and so is an impressive set of waterfalls. Ironically, I grew up just outside Detroit, the very city of which he was the accidental mayor, and saw neither hide nor hair of the man.

I’m Not Crying You’re Crying: Apparently Houghton and his dog were inseparable companions. A note from his memoirs reads:

[Meeme was] a devoted friend that always accompanied Dr. Houghton in boat or on land, in storm or in sunshine. This faithful companion was with him in the boat on the night that proved fatal to his master, but was washed ashore. It may not be unsuitable to say that the little favorite water-spaniel reached his home, Fredonia, N. Y., at last, survived several years, and is buried near the spot that his master had rendered memorable as the scene of his boyhood’s struggles for supremacy, and his first inspirations in the cause of science.

A Tool With A Tool: It bears mentioning that Samuel Morse, despite his contributions in both art and science, was not really a particularly great dude. He also had political aspirations, running for mayor of New York City multiple times on the Nativist ticket. “Nativist” happens to be that time’s euphemism for “anti-immigrant,” and Morse happened to hate Catholics, too. In one election, he lost fair and square, but in another, somebody published a forged letter of concession the day before the election in a local newspaper. With the public very confused about the whole thing, Morse only received a hundred votes or so.

I wish I could’ve somehow shoehorned that information in the episode, but I’ll have to settle for including the information here. I’d like to reiterate that Morse wasn’t some lone genius who alone knew the secrets of electric communication. The point of telling a story like his isn’t to say that we might never have had the telegraph were it not for Samuel Morse; but rather, this is how we did wind up with the telegraph.

Sorry If It Sounded Annoying: The dots and dashes in the background background of that segment, as you may have guessed, do spell out Morse’s message, “What hath God wrought.” What you might not have known is that you’re hearing the precise tempo at which Morse’s hand tapped out that message.

As he sent that message, the sequence was recorded on a strip of paper, which now lives at the Library of Congress. It’s not exactly right to call it a “recording,” since it’s more like sheet music. But this is the earliest accurate record of a historical sound precisely as it was played at the moment.

Click To Read Transcript


  1. Anatomica: The Complete Home Medical Reference, p. 418, 421. Chief Consultant Ken Ashwell, 2010.
  2. Crow Radio And Plasma Science, Humerus Varnhemiensis. Johan Carlsson, February 3, 2018.
  3. Metals In Medicine And The Environment, Copper: The Anti-Inflammatory Healer. Rebecca Reddaway, University Of Virginia
  4. Rites Of Conquest: The History And Culture Of Michigan’s Native Americans, p. 19. Charles E. Cleland, 1992.
  5. Alexander Henry. National Park Service, Timeline Of Copper Mining Prehistory To 1850.
  6. History.com, The Toledo War: When Michigan And Ohio Nearly Came To Blows. Evan Andrews, November 21, 2016.
  7. Michigan Department Of Military And Veterans Affairs, The Toledo War.
  8. The Facts And Historical Events Of The Toledo War Of 1835, p. 29. W. V. Way, 1889.
  9. Mental Floss, The Time Michigan And Ohio Almost Went To War For Real. Rob Lammle, November 24, 2018.
  10. Absolute Michigan, The Toledo War (AKA The Ohio-Michigan War).
  11. Ohio Memory, The Outrages Committed By The Authorities Of Michigan. December 7, 2018.
  12. Ohio History Central, Michigan Survey.
  13. Memoir of Douglass Houghton, First State Geologist, p. 129. Alvah Bradish, 1889.
  14. ibid., p. 48.
  15. As referenced in a Natural History Survey of Minnesota Annual Report for the year 1894, here on page 125.
  16. ThoughtCo., Samuel Morse And The Invention Of The Telegraph. Mary Bellis, July 27, 2017.
  17. The Life Of Samuel F. B. Morse, p. 140. Samuel Irenæus Prime, 1874.
  18. The Age Of Invention: A Chronicle Of Mechanical Conquest, p. 134. Holland Thompson, 1921.
  19. The Conversation, Copper Is Great At Killing Superbugs — So Why Don’t Hospitals Use It? Bill Keevil, February 24, 2017.
  20. Atlas Obscura, For Sale: A Penny Worth A Fortune. Matthew Taub, January 7, 2019.

4 Replies to “29. Copper: Wires Crossed”

  1. thanks for the gr8 show….
    keeps me company on my often long trips…..
    love the old time voices u do in your shows. ..
    thanks mate for all your hardwork.

  2. Wish some of the print content had been part of the podcast. I was kind of missing the copper amid all the storytelling. I’ve really enjoyed the episodes where you discuss the actual element!
    Thank you; it’s fun

    1. I get what you mean, it’s a difficult balance for me to strike sometimes! You might find the next episode to be similar, but episode 31 will probably focus a little more tightly on the kind of content you prefer. Thanks so much for listening!

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