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.
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:
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: Houghton 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.
Sometime around the 13th century CE, one man in Sweden had a very bad day. We know this because a few centuries later, we found his bones and could tell that he had suffered a traumatic injury to his upper arm. According to a professional assessment, our unfortunate Swede took a hit from an axe or sword, fracturing his humerus and possibly exposing the bone. It was a bad break made even more complex by the sheer density of critical veins and nerves that run through the upper arm.1 2
Thankfully, he happened to be in the right place at the right time, because apparently the local doctor was a person of exceptional skill. That doctor surgically inserted a sheet of copper to envelop the bone, which not only held it in place, but thanks to copper’s unique ability to destroy viruses and bacteria on contact, also staved off life-threatening infections.3 We don’t know much about this fascinating surgery, but we do know that it was a success, because further bone growth indicates that the man lived for a decade or more afterwards.
That’s an extremely advanced surgery for a medieval European doctor to perform. For the patient’s sake, I hope that doctor also happened to have extremely advanced knowledge of anesthesia.
You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.
Today, we’re getting the message about copper.
Copper, silver, and gold are the three metals that humans have historically found valuable enough to use as currency. It just so happens that all three are members of Group 11 on the periodic table.
This is more than coincidence, of course. As chemistry enthusiasts, we know that elements in the same group on the periodic table will share similar characteristics, and metals that will function as money need to meet certain requirements.
Most importantly, they need to be distinct and recognizable. They must also be a little soft, so a mint can strike intricate designs into coins, yet durable enough to be passed from person to person for decades. To meet these requirements, there’s no better place to turn than Group 11.
Of the three naturally occurring elements in this group, copper is the most common on Earth, so it usually takes the place of the smallest unit of value. But that also means it’s not too precious. It can moonlight as a working metal. Remember Otzi the Iceman’s copper axe?
Because it can be found in its native form, which doesn’t need to be refined, copper was probably the first metal humans learned to work. Among the first people on Earth to create metal tools were the Indigenous people who lived on the Great Lakes well over 7,000 years ago. They skillfully extracted the region’s fine copper and established a continent-wide trade network using nothing more than stone tools.4
When Europeans colonized the region, they too found the abundant copper. The first European copper mine in the area was established by Alexander Henry in 1771, but it didn’t last very long. Just about as soon as he got started, his sorry attempt at a mine caved in and his workers almost starved to death while waiting for rescue. Henry scrapped the whole endeavor, and discouraged his countrymen from making their own attempts:
The copper ores of Lake Superior can never be profitably sought for but local consumption. The country must be cultivated and peopled before they can deserve notice.”5
I guess the prior seventy centuries didn’t count in Henry’s mind. Regardless, that was all the convincing his fellow Englishmen needed, which was probably a relief to the Ojibwe who were cultivating and peopling the land at that time.
And that was the way things were for a while. That is, until Ohio got involved.
In 2019, we tend to take maps for granted. Sometimes we even get irritated if we need to actually read one, rather than have a computer read it and dictate directions for us. But for 99% of human history, the ability to retrieve accurate satellite imagery of practically any location on Earth would be regarded as a godlike superpower. Instead, we had to rely on the hard work of highly educated surveyors who almost never got the opportunity to get a birds-eye view.
Consequentially, border disputes have been quite common in history, and often started out as genuine mistakes.That was certainly the case between the state of Ohio and Michigan territory in the early 19th century. That border was supposed to be marked by a straight east-west line drawn from the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan. Due to geographical hiccups and cartographical inaccuracies, both Ohio and Michigan claimed the Maumee River Valley as theirs.
This was about more than just a narrow strip of land. The disputed area contained within its borders the city of Toledo, a real up-and-comer that was poised to become one of the largest commercial hubs on the Great Lakes.
That’s because overland travel has historically been painfully difficult, and not just because people didn’t have GPS. With poor maps, thick brush, mountainous terrain, bad weather, unpaved roads, and speed dictated by literal horsepower, a road trip wasn’t just slow, but often deadly dangerous. (You might be faintly aware of this if you’ve ever played The Oregon Trail video game.) In the year 1800, a journey from New York City to Toledo would take nearly a month to complete.
But with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, travel time was cut down to mere days, and transportation costs fell by over 90%. Settlers flooded the territory, and before long, Michiganders were clamoring for statehood. That meant some things would need to be made official, like, y’know. Borders. And surveyors with more up-to-date maps and equipment discovered that actually, technically, Toledo was supposed to be a part of the Michigan territory.
Well, naturally, Ohio wasn’t just going to say, “Excuse us, sorry, we’re just so bad at reading maps, please do take this pot o’ gold right off our hands.” Quite the opposite. Ohio congressmen even tried to block Michigan’s path to statehood simply to retain control of the Toledo Strip.
At the time, the governor of the Michigan territory was a firebrand named Stevens T. Mason. Only 24 years old when he took office, Stevens was then and still remains the youngest governor in American history. And he possessed all the fervor and righteousness of a man so young and privileged.
He declared, “We are the weaker party, it is true, but we are on the side of justice … we cannot fail to maintain our rights against the encroachments of a powerful neighboring state.”6 So, in 1835, the man known as “the Boy Governor” passed The Pains And Penalties Act. Under this law, any Ohio state officials claiming the Toledo Strip as their own would be arrested and subject to steep fines.
Not one to be outdone, Ohio Governor Robert Lucas established a new county named after himself, officially declaring the Maumee River Valley as belonging to them. Tensions escalated, and both sides started raising militias in preparation for a fight.
That fight turned out to be more about optics than tactics. For instance: Ohio’s legislature authorized a $300,000 military budget for the defense of the Toledo Strip. Soon after, Michigan approved one worth $315,000.7 Under the Pains And Penalties Act, Michigan captured nine Ohioan surveyors and shot their rifles over the heads of others who ran off, so technically, there were shots fired in this “war.”
But over the course of this entire conflict, there was only one casualty. On July 15, 1835, Major Benjamin Franklin Stickney was enjoying a drink in a Toledo tavern with his sons, named One and Two. Those really were their legal names — the older brother was One Stickney, and the younger brother was Two Stickney. Anyway, all was calm until Michigan Sheriff Joseph Wood darkened their doorway. He was there to arrest Benjamin for voting in an Ohio election, a violation of the Pains And Penalties Act.8
But the Stickney clan wasn’t going down without a fight. They resisted arrest, and the scuffle turned violent when Two Stickney stabbed Sheriff Wood in the thigh with a pen knife, drawing first blood in the Toledo War. (Have no fear, Wood’s injury was merely a flesh wound that quickly healed.)9
A few months later, Governor Lucas announced that he would hold a court session in Toledo that would confirm Ohio’s ownership of the city once and for all. In response, the Boy Governor rustled up over a thousand armed men and led them onward toward Toledo. Farmers cheered them on as they passed on the way to their epic confrontation.
But when the Michigan militia arrived, they met no resistance. There were no politicians and no soldiers. So they glanced around awkwardly, gave a cheer, and marched back home, assuming victory was theirs.10
Unbeknownst to them, the Ohio contingent had held their court session in secret under the cover of night, then fled the city before Stevens and his men arrived.
This was the point where President Andrew Jackson, a deeply unhinged man who loved bloodshed, decided that enough was enough. He had Stevens removed from office before he even arrived back home in Detroit, and replaced him with John Horner, a man who really didn’t give a hoot about the Toledo Strip. Under his leadership, Michigan surrendered the Maumee River Valley to Ohio in exchange for admission to the union as a full-fledged state. As a consolation prize, Michigan was granted over 9,000 square miles of territory in addition to the mitten-shaped peninsula they already claimed, the copper-rich land that belonged to the Ojibwe and would become known as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.11
In gratitude, the people of Michigan called Horner all sorts of nasty names, pelted him with vegetables, and hanged him in effigy. At the earliest opportunity — even before Michigan’s official admission as a state — the people ousted him and reelected the Boy Governor, Stevens T. Mason.12
But the battle for Toledo was clearly settled. No one in Michigan was particularly excited about this unwanted land they’d just inherited. It was much too far away to host any bustling port cities, and it was so far north that it remained foreboding and frigid for much of the year.
Nonetheless, now it was their foreboding and frigid territory, so the statesmen sighed, shrugged their shoulders, and decided they should probably send someone up there to take a look at the place.
For that task, Governor Mason selected Douglass Houghton, a much-loved doctor from Detroit. He a kind man of notably small stature with a keen appreciation for the natural world. At Mason’s request, he happily hung up his stethoscope and became Michigan’s first official state geologist.
Starting in the late 1830s, Houghton led annual expeditions to the Upper Peninsula, learning an incredible amount about the unique flora and fauna of the land. His yearly reports described a wealth of natural resources, from fish to timber to iron, but especially the Keweenaw Peninusla’s abundance of copper.
He would return to Detroit every year before the U.P.’s infamously bitter winter set in. But one year, he found quite a surprise waiting for him back home. “During my absence from the city,” he wrote, “and without any knowledge whatever, on my part, I have been elected mayor.”13
He tried to politely refuse, and then seriously decline, but the will of the people was strong. Reluctantly, the “Little Doctor” was now Detroit’s “Little Mayor.”
His heart really wasn’t in the job, and honestly he still spent most of his time studying the state’s geology. But he mustn’t have been too delinquent in his duties, because he couldn’t relinquish them even if he tried.
During one particular incident, Houghton was overseeing a council meeting in which two parties felt particularly passionate about some local affair. The council members became loud and angry, which Houghton tolerated for a while, but he eventually tried to call order — to no avail. Finally, exasperated, he proclaimed that if they didn’t stop this nonsense immediately, he was going to immediately resign as their mayor and presiding officer.
Personally, I suspect that he saw an out, and was hoping he could use this as his excuse to resign from a job he didn’t really want in the first place. But that’s not what happened. As reported at the time by one Mr. Silas Farmer, “This was sufficient; order was instantly restored. It takes a man of nerve and independence to do this. But it was in this way that Houghton won the esteem of all parties and classes of men. They respected his energetic business habits, and his impartial administration of the municipal government.”14
Houghton was re-elected for a second term as mayor. He probably would have gone on to become governor, too, had he not met an untimely death during another expedition up north.
It was in one of his final reports from the frontier that Houghton urged the good people of Michigan to exercise prudence with this unspoiled landscape:
I would by no means desire to throw obstacles in the way of those who might wish to engage in the business of mining this ore … but I would simply caution those persons … in the hope of accumulating wealth suddenly and without patient industry and capital, to look closely before the step is taken, which will most certainly end in disappointment and ruin.”15
But for as beloved as Douglass Houghton was, this piece of advice would go unheeded. In the wake of a prominent artist’s personal tragedy, copper was about to become a natural resource that could make men millionaires.
For the most part, Samuel Morse lived a comfortable life. His father was a preacher who valued an austere lifestyle, but he never wanted for much. While studying at Yale, Morse supported himself by painting miniature portraits for five dollars a pop.16
This wasn’t the most lucrative side hustle, but it had captured Morse’s attention. After graduating from Yale, he traveled far and wide, in Europe and the United States, studying the Romantic style of portraiture. Eventually, he settled down, opening a studio and raising a family in Boston with his wife, Lucretia.
He landed quite an opportunity in 1825, when he was commissioned to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, a French military officer who had lent his considerable expertise to the United States in the Revolutionary War. He was a widely respected figure in the U.S., and rather advanced in his years, so Morse would need to travel to Washington, DC, for the portrait.
That was no trouble at all. If anything, Morse was kind of a fanboy.”My feelings were almost too powerful for me,” he recalled of his meeting with the Marquis. “Sir, I am exceedingly happy in your acquaintance, and especially on such an occasion.”17
But while Morse was commemorating a personal hero, a rider approached bearing bad news. His father had written a letter, informing him that his wife had suffered complications in childbirth, and the outlook was not good. By the time Morse returned home, Lucretia was dead, and had already been buried.
He was devastated. If only he had heard the news more immediately, perhaps he could have at least been by her side for her final hours.
That was a thought that would really stick with Samuel Morse, even as he continued working as an artist. While traveling across the Atlantic yet again, he overheard a fellow passenger asking, “Is the velocity of electricity reduced by the length of its conducting wire?”18
The answer to that question is complex with fascinating implications for global infrastructure, but for the purposes of today’s story and Samuel Morse, we’re going to simply say, “No,” and, “Electric signals are basically sent instantly across any distance.” Remember, in this context, our comparison is against horses, not fiber-optic cable.
All these pieces slowly came together in Samuel Morse’s mind. He wasn’t the only person thinking along these lines — prototype telegraphs had been built as early as 1774 — but he was the most motivated.
He spent several years whipping up support for his design of a telegraph machine that could send and record signals instantly across long distances, so long as the two points were connected by cable. Morse conducted experiments, filed patents, and devised a cipher that converted the English alphabet into a sequence of dots and dashes — the forerunner of what is known today as Morse Code.
On May 24, 1844, with the financial backing of the United States Congress, Samuel Morse unveiled his invention by sending the world’s first officially telegraphed long-distance message from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland. As a faithful Christian, he was grateful to God for the opportunity now afforded to him, so in earnest devotion, that message carried a Biblical quote:
“What hath God wrought?”
This was the most important moment in communications technology since the invention of the printing press 400 years prior. In technological concert with railroads, the telegraph carried American settlers from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast in record time.
But remember, all those locations had to be networked. That meant people were going to suddenly need a lot of metal, preferably a metal with high conductivity that could easily be drawn into wire. The best would be silver — but that would be ridiculous. Silver was far too rare and expensive to put to use like that. But copper was almost as good, and much more plentiful. Especially in that Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
This sparked the United States’ first mineral rush, and would provide a sort of training ground for the more famous gold rush that would happen in San Francisco just a few years later. Immigrants from Cornwall brought their mining expertise and delicious pasties, and Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula helped string more than 20,000 miles of copper wiring across the country in less than ten years.
Copper is still the metal of choice for electric wiring in 2019, except for some corner cases where silver or gold might be used. The easiest place to find a sample of reasonably high purity is probably your local hardware store’s electrical department.
Armed with the knowledge that copper has antiseptic properties, one place you might hope to find element 29 is in your local hospital. Some have started to do this, outfitting handrails and such with copper plating, particularly in France. But considering how many lives it could save at such a low cost, it’s not nearly as widespread as you might hope it would be. At least, not yet.19
So where else to look? If you listened to the last episode, nickel, you won’t be surprised to learn that the American penny is a disappointment in this regard. At least, modern ones are. Since 1982, pennies are mostly composed of our next element, zinc, with only a thin copper coating on the outside. But take a close look the next time you receive a handful of change — if it was minted before 1982, that will make a pretty good addition to your element collection, and your slowly growing sub-collection of coins, too.
You might want to especially keep an eye out for any pennies you might have that display the year 1943. Because of World War II, copper was strictly rationed, so that year’s pennies were to be made of steel. However, an extremely small number — no more than fifteen — were accidentally minted with some leftover bronze, an alloy of copper and other metals.
As this episode of the podcast was being written, one of those 1943 brass pennies was put on the auction block in Orlando, Florida, and sold for a staggering price north of $200,000. That’s not too bad, especially considering the original owner found it in a handful of change from his high school cafeteria.20
For the rest of us, we’ll probably have to settle for one of those full-copper pennies minted before 1982. It might not fetch six figures at auction, but for the discerning collector, it’s worth an awful lot more than one cent.
Thanks for listening to the Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel // Josh Crowley. To see a video of how copper can defy gravity and learn why police are called “the cops,” visit Episodic Table dot com slash C u.
Next time, we’ll get amped up about zinc. Until then, this is T. R. Appleton reminding you that Cosmo Castorini might have been right about copper pipes, but he was criminally overcharging his customers.
- Anatomica: The Complete Home Medical Reference, p. 418, 421. Chief Consultant Ken Ashwell, 2010.
- Crow Radio And Plasma Science, Humerus Varnhemiensis. Johan Carlsson, February 3, 2018.
- Metals In Medicine And The Environment, Copper: The Anti-Inflammatory Healer. Rebecca Reddaway, University Of Virginia
- Rites Of Conquest: The History And Culture Of Michigan’s Native Americans, p. 19. Charles E. Cleland, 1992.
- Alexander Henry. National Park Service, Timeline Of Copper Mining Prehistory To 1850.
- History.com, The Toledo War: When Michigan And Ohio Nearly Came To Blows. Evan Andrews, November 21, 2016.
- Michigan Department Of Military And Veterans Affairs, The Toledo War.
- The Facts And Historical Events Of The Toledo War Of 1835, p. 29. W. V. Way, 1889.
- Mental Floss, The Time Michigan And Ohio Almost Went To War For Real. Rob Lammle, November 24, 2018.
- Absolute Michigan, The Toledo War (AKA The Ohio-Michigan War).
- Ohio Memory, The Outrages Committed By The Authorities Of Michigan. December 7, 2018.
- Ohio History Central, Michigan Survey.
- Memoir of Douglass Houghton, First State Geologist, p. 129. Alvah Bradish, 1889.
- ibid., p. 48.
- As referenced in a Natural History Survey of Minnesota Annual Report for the year 1894, here on page 125.
- ThoughtCo., Samuel Morse And The Invention Of The Telegraph. Mary Bellis, July 27, 2017.
- The Life Of Samuel F. B. Morse, p. 140. Samuel Irenæus Prime, 1874.
- The Age Of Invention: A Chronicle Of Mechanical Conquest, p. 134. Holland Thompson, 1921.
- The Conversation, Copper Is Great At Killing Superbugs — So Why Don’t Hospitals Use It? Bill Keevil, February 24, 2017.
- Atlas Obscura, For Sale: A Penny Worth A Fortune. Matthew Taub, January 7, 2019.