We’ve palled around with tin for thousands of years, but you should know that it’s a fair-weather friend.
Featured above: Tin cans from Robert Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole — only one of many points of failure.
I mentioned some of the other endeavors occupying my time lately, and I’d hate to make you hunt them down. For convenience’s sake, here are links to the book review, Element Update, and video that I mentioned.
Take A Deep Breath: You might notice the recording includes a few more breaths and stuff than I usually like to include. My apologies. I improperly set up some equipment this week, and the recording had awful popping plosives and clipping throughout the entire run. In other words, it sounded really bad.
I fixed my setup and re-recorded, but on top of taking up time when I’d ordinarily write show notes, it also meant a really rough edit. I’ll get a more pleasant version uploaded tonight.
Can Cans Can-Can? If you’re curious about some of that antique tin can collecting, Jim Rock appears to be the person to go to. Aside, the subhead for that article is great: “For Jim Rock, tin cans were as important as shards of ancient pottery. Each can told a story of nineteenth and twentieth century life in America.”
Happy Accidents: Sometimes I want to include more detail in the program, but can’t because it would seriously derail things. That’s when I’m thankful for the show notes. This isn’t a huge deal, but I just couldn’t find a way to wedge this in without making it all clunky:
It’s not the iron oxide that makes Mars red, even though rust is that color. Rather, it’s the fact that there’s sizable dust of any kind scattering light in the thin Martian atmosphere. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe this is a phenomenon called Mie Scattering. It’s similar to but different from the Rayleigh Scattering that makes our own planet blue.
Well, Someone’s Screaming: This is the best example of tin scream I’ve found anywhere. Turn your volume all the way up:
Indium also exhibits this same sonic phenomenon. The only other element to do so, as far as I know, is mercury — but you need to freeze it solid, first.
Misophonia, by the way, is… well, it’s not exactly a condition, or a syndrome, or anything like that. It’s more of a propensity. A propensity to become so bothered by certain sounds that they can trigger a fight-flight-freeze response. It’s like the evil twin of ASMR.
And He Wasn’t Killed By Arsenic: “An army marches on its stomach” is an aphorism often attributed to Napoleon, but like so many pithy quotes, he didn’t actually say that. Well, maybe he did, but he didn’t coin the phrase.
The Story Beneath The Story Beneath The Story: Whenever I find a story that’s widespread on the history blogs, like I did with Nicolas Appert, I try to dig a little deeper. Most of the time, there’s a more interesting story underneath that’s been lost in the game of telephone. In this case, I did find that the Dutch navy might have been the first to preserve food in tin cans, but I didn’t have any hot leads before recording. This would make a great research project for anyone who’s bored! Get to it quick, though, because I’ll get back around to it someday. Here’s a head start.
A Cold, Dark Place: I wasn’t being hyperbolic when comparing the poles to the Moon. Antarctica is one of NASA’s proving grounds for people and machines who might go to Mars.
Scott’s Antarctic expedition had its own photographer in tow, Herbert Ponting. He didn’t just take still photographs, but also some of the first moving pictures ever recorded. Here’s a taste:
His work was intended to be shown as part of a celebration upon Scott’s return. Obviously, once the explorers’ bodies were discovered, these images took on a different shade.
Ponting was fine, however. He was never supposed to go all the way to the South Pole, because the journey became too precarious after a certain point. He and all other extraneous members of the crew turned back after 14 months in the Arctic, unaware that they’d just said goodbye to Robert Scott for the last time.
His footage was compiled into a feature-length film called 90 Degrees South:
The entire account of Scott’s expedition is one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever heard. I’m afraid I didn’t do it justice in what little time I was able to allot in this episode.
For instance, it was never supposed to be a race in the first place. Scott was off to the Pole in service of King and Country. Norway was newly independent, but had familial ties to the British crown, so the proper thing to do was let Scott take the victory.
Amundsen wanted his name in the history books, though, so he told everybody he was just going on a little sailing trip ’round the southernmost tip of Africa. Then, when the moment was right, he bolted for Antarctica. Who was going to stop him?
Scott had requested a dogsled team meet up with him on the return journey, loaded with supplies. It never arrived. Scott presumed he had overshot the rendezvous point.
One man said he was “just going outside” and never returned.
They knew what was coming. Scott’s final journal entry ended, “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God’s sake look after our people.”
I don’t think I adequately got across just how desperate all this must have felt. But then again, I’m also not trying to make people weep on their Monday commute.
By the way, over a hundred years later, someone discovered one of Scott’s canned fruitcakes and found that it “looked and smelled edible!” That says more about fruitcake than the tin, though.
And Don’t Feed It After Midnight: I hope I did a decent job explaining tin pest, but you really must see it for yourself. Observe:
It’s been a while since we’ve talked about allotropes, but make no mistake: They’re really important!
I can’t believe the wealth of content I didn’t get a chance to cover. Tin-type photography, the Tin Lizzie, the Pilkington Process, this bit about the pipe organs, its doubly magic nature… I really wanted to include this quote about soldiers’ bread, “which moved by its own internal impulse, occasioned by the myriad of insects that dwelt within.” Combine all that with the extra details about Robert Scott — like the thousands of fossils they found — and this episode could easily double in length. Perhaps one day I’ll go through all these and give ’em another go. Honestly, I could work on this project for the rest of my life and still never finish it.
Tin has been a loyal friend of ours for millennia. The Romans called it stannum, which is why its chemical symbol is S n today. Tin is easy to hammer into shape. It has a melting point that’s low, but not too low. Alloyed with copper, it makes bronze, a metal so useful that we named an entire age of technological progress after it. Tin lets us join other metals together as solder, it’s non-toxic, sometimes it even provides the roof over our heads. You can try just about anything with tin! What a good old friend we have in element 50.2
Tin only asks for one small thing in return. Do not leave it out in the cold.
It’s an easy rule to obey. That’s not how friends treat each other anyway, so you probably weren’t planning on doing anything like that. At least, I hope not, because if you break that one simple rule, it may very well cost you your life.
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 can learn about tin.
Almost one hundred of the elements are metals, but for a huge chunk of history, we were only aware of seven. Coincidentally, for roughly the same amount of time, humans looked up at the sky and saw seven objects that seemed to act a little different from the stars in the sky. Naturally, people drew connections between them.
The largest and brightest of all the heavenly bodies was the sun. As it was king of the sky, so too was it king of the elements: gold. The pale white moon came to be associated with silver. The fastest object in the night sky and the slippery liquid metal were both named Mercury, after the fleet-footed emissary of Roman mythology. Lovely Venus was compared to warmly colored copper. Mars famously shines bright red because swirling storms of rust scatter red light throughout its sky.3 Ancient astronomers couldn’t have known that, so it’s mostly a lucky coincidence that they linked that planet with iron. Dull and heavy lead matched with Saturn, which sluggishly plods through space. And then… well, then one planet and one metal were left over. So the sages associated those two with each other not because they wanted to, but because they kind of had to. Anyone who was ever picked last in gym class can relate.
That, however, is not the reason why tin cries. Tin will scream to announce its pain when it’s bent out of shape. Literally. If you take a tin bar firmly in both hands and bend it, you’ll hear a sound that for centuries is called “tin cry” or “tin scream.”4 5
It’s honestly not as impressive as you would think. It’s not even really accurate, really. The sound is more akin to a bowl of Rice Krispies and freshly poured milk. Hear for yourself:
Apologies to those of you with misophonia.
Epithets aside, the reason this happens is because microscopic sheets of crystallized tin are sliding past each other.6 It’s similar to what happens at the San Andreas Fault, where the Pacific Tectonic Plate slides past the North American Plate, building up tension before releasing it in seismic shockwaves.7 8 A more appropriate name for this phenomenon, then, might be “tinquake.”
It’s a strange little quirk, but it’s not any kind of warning sign. You will not be irradiated, asphyxiated, contaminated, incinerated, disintegrated, or assassinated with tin.
These qualities, along with its resistance to corrosion, make it an ideal material for handling food. People throughout the ages have used tin for their pots, pans, plates, cups, and cutlery. But the most prominent culinary use of element 50 is a relatively recent invention, and it was nothing short of revolutionary.
“An army travels on its stomach,” or so the saying goes. Keeping an army in fighting shape is not just a logistical matter for the aspiring conqueror, but an issue of morale, as well. The methods of food preservation available for most of history were problematic in both regards.
Fermentation, drying, and sugaring have all been used as preservation methods for thousands of years. But they all have one thing in common: They take an awfully long time. That’s not terribly practical when feeding an army on the move. On top of that, those foods often didn’t taste so great, at least not when that’s the only thing on the menu.9 When you’re asking soldiers to march dozens of miles in cold rain just to meet the end of a bayonet, the least you can do is give them a decent meal.
Soldiers serving in the French army at the end of the 18th century enjoyed no such luxury, living entirely off a diet of salted meat and bread. In 1795, the French government offered a bounty of 12,000 francs to anyone who could invent a new, faster, more palatable way to preserve food.10
Competition was not especially fierce, but one man was very determined to win the prize: Nicolas Appert, a chef and confectioner whom we might as well also call a chemist. He thought two things were needed to successfully preserve food: The absence of air, and the presence of heat.11 12
With that in mind, he filled glass bottles to the brim with soups, stews, fruits, and vegetables, boiled them for several hours, then sealed them closed with cork, wires, and wax. He fine-tuned this recipe for years, though even his early trial runs were met with exceptional praise.13 14
In 1805, the Almanach des Gourmands read, “[i]n each bottle and at little cost is a glorious sweetness that recalls the month of May in the heart of winter.”15 Other reports stated that the preserved vegetables “have all the freshness and flavor of hand-picked vegetables,”16 and that Appert’s method “fixes the seasons, so much so that spring, summer, and autumn live in bottles.”17
This might all sound a little surprising if you’ve ever eaten canned peas, but you’d probably be ebullient, too, if you’d been living off a diet of salt pork and crackers.
British merchant Peter Durand took it from there. In 1810, he did for the container what Appert did for the food inside: He increased its durability. Glass is inert and tolerates heat, but it’s somewhat fragile. On a long campaign, military leaders need to know they won’t lose their rations just because of a bumpy road.
Durand replaced the glass bottles with iron cans, staving off rust by plating them with tin.20 This iteration of canning was nothing short of a miracle.
The only slight annoyance was that no one had bothered to invent a can opener. For nearly fifty years, retrieving the goods contained within was a frustrating exercise involving a hammer and chisel, or a pocketknife, or a rock.21
Inconveniences aside, this new container of tin allowed the brave souls who ventured into the blank areas of the map to travel farther than ever before.
At the turn of the twentieth century, those frontiers were the poles at either end of the Earth. Hostile, lifeless, full of unknown dangers, and weeks away from human civilization, the North and South Poles had more in common with the Moon than any other Great Unknown.22
After Robert Peary and Frederick Cooke each claimed to have independently reached the North Pole in 1909, the South Pole was all that remained. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen were the two men who would lead competing expeditions to the bottom of the planet.
Scott’s campaign was sent off with much fanfare: Photographs, marching bands, cheering crowds — but it was almost immediately beset with misfortune. Two days after setting sail from New Zealand, two of the group’s nineteen ponies were killed in a violent storm. They were fortunate not to have lost the entire ship.23
Months later, while struggling to set up camp at Ross Island, Scott’s men caught a glimpse of Amundsen’s dogsleds racing across the bright white landscape. Scott’s ponies were less suited to the deep snow, and moved slowly even under the best of circumstances.
Whenever it seemed like Scott’s team had hit rock bottom, the situation would become almost comically worse. One night the men heard a great cracking sound. When they left their tents to investigate, they discovered that they were not on terra firma, but stranded atop an ice floe. Drifting on a separate floe alongside them were the ponies. As they tried to recover, the situation became more dire: Black heads and immense fins started to appear out of the water, and before long, more than a dozen enormous orcas were circling the ice, hungrily eyeing the panicking party.
I’ll spare you the gruesome details and simply say that things did not end well for the ponies.
Now, on top of frostbite, snow blindness, and exhaustion, the team had to haul their heavy sledges across the ice themselves.24
Performing such heavy work in temperatures well below zero requires a lot of energy, and thus, a different sort of diet than you and I may be accustomed to. One day’s rations included a can of concentrated fat, twelve lumps of sugar, and half a stick of butter, but Scott was especially fond of Tate & Lyle’s light treacle. “Dear Sir,” he wrote to the company, “I have pleasure in informing you that your ‘Golden Syrup’ has been in daily use in this hut throughout the Winter and has been much appreciated by all the members of the expedition.”25 Even from inside the planet’s icebox, the tin can was the only way they could preserve and transport all these perishables.
They were also able to prepare for the future in a way that would have been impossible without canning. Every so often, Scott’s team dutifully left behind a cache of food and fuel, lightening their current load and ensuring they would have these vital supplies upon their return trip. All these provisions were sealed away inside reliable cans of tin.
Whatever previous hardships the Scott expedition suffered felt insignificant next to the crushing disappointment of January 17, 1912. As they trudged through the whipping winds and swirling snow toward the southernmost tip of the Earth, a dark shape flapped in the air: The Norwegian flag. After two years of grueling travel, walking well over a thousand miles in the world’s harshest weather, they arrived only to find that Amundsen’s team had beaten them by a few weeks.26
“The worst has happened,” Scott wrote in his journal. “Great God! This is an awful place, and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.” They posed for photographs, because the only thing worse would have been not taking photographs, and defeat is plainly visible on the five men’s faces. “Now for the run home, and a desperate struggle.”27 28 29
On their return, Scott’s men had to spread their rations a little thinner than they had on the trip down. Their daily calorie intake decreased from four and a half thousand calories per day down to three thousand eight hundred calories per day. That’s still nearly double a typical person’s daily caloric intake, but the Antarctic is an incredibly relentless environment. They were burning nearly seven thousand calories per day, which meant the men were undergoing prolonged starvation.
“We are getting more hungry, there is no doubt,” Scott wrote a few days after the Great Disappointment. “The lunch meal is beginning to seem inadequate. We are pretty thin…”
They would have lost all their body fat, which is not just the way the body stores surplus energy, but also a valuable layer of insulation that protects the internal organs from the cold. Less insulation meant their bodies would burn calories more quickly in an attempt to stay warm, and their bodies started consuming muscle mass for energy. It was a death spiral.
A glimmer of hope remained in the supply points the team had set up on the trek down — except those, too, turned into heartbreaking disappointment when the crew discovered open cans of food soaked in pools of kerosene.30
Tin has one rule, remember: Do not leave it out in the cold.
You see, element fifty exhibits some very unusual behavior. The highly organized crystal structure evidenced by tin’s cry will slowly start to change shape at temperatures below thirteen degrees Celsius.31 The shiny silver allotrope known as beta tin transforms into the dull grey one called alpha tin. The atoms arrange themselves into a lattice that occupies a little more space. The metal expands, and loses its durability. What was previously solid and durable becomes delicate and brittle, crumbling to dust at the slightest touch.
It’s quite plausible that this is what happened to Scott’s stashes of canned goods, but not one hundred percent certain. Some people theorize that the cans may have been improperly soldered closed. It’s difficult to know for sure, because all five men died on the journey home.32
We can’t conclude that tin’s allotropic transformation is what sealed their fate, but of the many, many things that went wrong for the explorers, it was certainly one of the most disastrous.
What’s surprising is that no one involved with the expedition had predicted this. Tin’s failure to hold up in the cold has been known for centuries, called “tin pest” or “tin disease” due to the way it spreads across the metal’s surface like an unstoppable infection.
Enough other people throughout history have suffered the effects of tin plague that there was no reason for the Scott party to join their number.
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, a century before Scott’s ill-fated undertaking, is an oft-cited example of the catastrophic consequences of tin plague. The French army’s buttons were made of tin, the story goes, and in the bitter cold of the Russian winter, they moldered to powder. Unable to keep their coats closed against the biting wind and driving rain, Napoleon’s soldiers fell ill or froze to death. Were it not for the poor decision of some anonymous military tailor, surely the grand strategist would have defeated Alexander I, Emperor Of All Russia, and changed the course of history.
This, of course, is hogwash.
It’s quite widespread hogwash, though, so it merits a little more mythbusting rather than outright dismissal. Fortunately, while preparing a building site in 2001, some Lithuanian construction workers uncovered seven thousand skeletons.33
After the initial terror wore off, experts were called in, and it was determined that these were the 200-year-old remains of la Grande Armee. Inspection by chemists, pathologists, and a conservationist concluded that the vast majority of buttons were silver or brass. A small number were, in fact, made of tin, but all of them were in relatively decent shape.
Considering this lack of physical evidence, and the fact that all known letters and journal entries from the period make no mention of such a wardrobe malfunction, it seems safe to write this story off as a myth.
If anything, Napoleon’s army suffered from a debilitating lack of tin. Despite paying a small fortune for Appert’s invention, Napoleon ordered his soldiers to outpace their own supply trains. The soldiers were forced to provide for themselves by foraging and pillaging the lands they invaded. This was made more difficult, however, by the retreating Russians scorching the earth as the French army pursued them. By the time they reached Moscow, it was nothing but an abandoned city in flames.34
Napoleon had assembled the largest army in history for this campaign, nearly seven hundred thousand soldiers. Only fifteen percent survived to come back home. Cold weather certainly contributed to this tragedy — along with starvation, typhus, dysentery, insubordination, exhaustion, exposure, and impassable terrain — but a reliance on tin was not to blame.
Possessing many of the same qualities as tin but weighing much less, and being far more abundant, aluminum has taken over many of the responsibilities formerly held by element 50. Language has been slow to catch up, though, meaning most of the things we call tin would actually make inappropriate samples for your collection.
Modern-day “tin foil” and “tin cans” are two such disappointments.
However, there is an active community of people who collect antique tin cans, making this a viable avenue for us to explore. They’re pure enough even for the discerning collector, but possess appeal for more reasons than their chemical makeup. What previous generations would have thrown away as trash are veritable museum pieces today, showcasing quaintly retro package design and revealing the goods that an increasingly mobile and fast-paced society would have valued.
Perhaps you do not wish to display trash in your home. If you’re one of those element collectors with an eye for coins, you might like to pick up a Japanese 10-sen coin from 1944. Due to wartime rationing, those coins were made of seven percent zinc and ninety-three percent tin. Pick up an additional nine while you’re at it: Ten sen is equal to one yen, making them a suitable counterpart to your aluminum yenny.35
Perhaps the rarest sample you could possibly acquire would be one that’s already destined for a display case: An Academy Award. Until 2016, the Oscars were not made of pure gold. Gold-plated, most of the time, but underneath the skin was an alloy called Britannia: Two percent copper, six percent antimony, and ninety-two percent tin.36
You’re not out of luck if you can only get your hands on a post-2016 Oscar, though. Modern statuettes are made of bronze, another alloy that contains tin, if you remember the beginning of the episode.
So if you’re a chemical collector who happens to be a Hollywood auteur on the side, keep working on that cinematic masterpiece. If you’re looking for a fitting subject for your Oscarbait, might I suggest a biopic about Monsieur Appert?
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To see real motion pictures of Scott’s doomed trip to the South Pole, visit episodic table dot com slash S n.
Next time, we’ll learn why you might have acrimony for antimony.
Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.
- History.com, The Treacherous Race To The South Pole. Evan Andrews, August 22, 2018.
- Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility – Office of Science Education, The Element Tin.
- Two Worlds, One Sun. Brian Koberlein.
- Science Notes, What Is Tin Cry? Explanation Of The Term And How To Hear It. Anne Helmenstine, August 28, 2017.
- Pantologia. A New (Cabinet) Cyclopædia, By J.M. Good, O. Gregory, And N. Bosworth assisted by other gentlemen of eminence, 1813. Citing this only for the date, really, showing that the phrase has, in fact, been used for hundreds of years.
- Nature, The Cry Of Tin. Bruce Chalmers, April, 1932.
- US Geological Survey, The San Andreas Fault. Sandra S.Shulz and Robert E. Wallace, November 30, 2016.
- The Geological Society, San Andreas Fault.
- The Independent, The Tin Can Revolution: The Humble Invention That Changed The Way We Live. Samuel Muston, September 3, 2010.
- Foods That Changed History: How Foods Shaped Civilization From The Ancient World To The Present, p. 51. Christopher Cumo, 2015.
- Smithsonian.com, The Father Of Canning Knew His Process Worked, But Not Why It Worked. Kat Eschner ,February 2,2017.
- History.com, What It Says On The Tin: A Brief History Of Canned Food. Nate Barksdale, August 22, 2018.
- Wired, Nov. 17, 1749: Father Of Modern Canning Born. Tony Long, November 17, 2010.
- The Art Of Preserving All Kinds Of Animal And Vegetable Substances For Several Years. Nicolas Appert, 1812 (Second Edition). The original work. I’m fond of the abridged title: The Art Of Preserving, &c. &c. &c.
- Exploring The Materiality Of Food “Stuffs”: Transformations, Symbolic Consumption And Embodiments, p. 44. Louise Steel and Katharina Zinn, 2016.
- Salt: A World History, p. 303-305. Mark Kurlansky, 2002.
- Food Nations: Selling Taste In Consumer Societies, p. 114. Warren Belasco, Philip Scranton, 2014.
- Strategic Inventions Of The Napoleonic Wars, p. 71. Jeri Freedman, 2016.
- Encyclopedia.com, Nicolas Appert. November 10, 2019.
- Canning Age, Volume 3, p. 34. National Trade Journal, 1922.
- Smithsonian Magazine SmartNews, Why The Can Opener Wasn’t Invented Until Almost 50 Years After The Can. Kat Eschner, August 24, 2017.
- Encyclopedia.com, Overview: Exploration And Discovery 1900-1949. Last updated November 15, 2019.
- Smithsonian.com, Sacrifice Amid The Ice: Facing Facts On The Scott Expedition. Gilbert King, May 16, 2016.
- Genealogy Bank, ‘The Worst Has Happened’: Tragedy On The Ice. Tony Pettinato, November 12, 2019.
- Pickled, Potted, And Canned: How The Art And Science Of Food Preserving Changed The World, p. 271. Sue Shephard, 2001.
- Aside from Scott’s diary, this page compares the two parties’ expeditions.
- The British Library, Robert Scott’s Diary. Caution, this takes ages to load.
- Blue Ice: Travels In Antarctica, p. 88. Don Pinnock, 2005.
- The Guardian, Tired, Frozen, Beaten: Image Of Captain Scott’s Expedition That Foretold A Tragedy. Robin McKie, November 11, 2017.
- Exploring The World Of Chemistry: From Ancient Metals To High-Speed Computers, p 9. John Tipler, 2001.
- The Periodic Table: A Visual Guide To The Elements, this page. Gail Dixon and Paul Parsons, 2014.
- The Guardian, Scott Of The Antarctic: The Lies That Doomed His Race To The Pole. Robin McKie, September 24, 2011.
- The Last Alchemist In Paris, p. 162 – 173. Lars Öhrström, 2013.
- History.com, Why Napoleon’s Invasion Of Russia Was The Beginning Of The End. Jesse Greenspan, April 9, 2019.
- Buntetsu Museum Of Bank Notes And Coins, 10 Sen Tin Coins.
- The Verge, The 2016 Oscars Will Abandon One Of The Ceremony’s Oldest Traditions. Chris Plante, February 26, 2016.