A metal of great importance to human civilization, tin is a key component in the alloys bronze and pewter, as well as lending its name to several modern kitchen items.
Tin is a relatively rare element, ranking 25th in abundance in the Earth’s crust, but its properties as a soft, malleable metal have made it invaluable to human civilization. Beginning as early as 3000 BC, metal smiths discovered that adding tin to copper in the production of metal tools and vessels lowered the melting temperature, making casting an easier process, yet still yielding hard, durable products. Thus, civilization moved from the Copper Age to the Bronze Age.
Tin’s scarcity and its importance in making tools and weapons encouraged the development of trade and cultural interactions among settlements and cultures that may now be traced by the archeological recovery of bronze objects from that period. The first evidence of bronze making appears to have been in the Near East and around the Balkans in 3000 BC, followed by European mining five hundred years later in the area that now borders between Germany and the Czech Republic.
Pewter is a second alloy of tin and contains 85-95 percent of the metal along with either copper, antimony, bismuth, or as hardeners or lead. Lead was used to make lower grades of pewter, which generally have a bluish cast. Prior to the development of glassmaking techniques in the 18th and 19th century, pewter was the most common material for making tableware and drinking vessels.
Tin’s provenance is apparent in two different items found in the modern kitchen. Tin foil was replaced by aluminum foil in the early 1900s, but the silvery wrap for food is still often referred to as its tin counterpart. Similarly, tin cans, which referred originally to tin-plated steel food containers rather than cans made entirely from tin, are now commonly made from aluminum, which is less expensive, but shares tin’s resistance to corrosion.
Current uses of tin are in alloys of lead used for soldering pipes and in corrosion-resistant coatings for lead, zinc, or steel. Tin/lead alloys are also used for the metal pipes in pipe organs. Since tin is the most resonant of metals, the amount of tin in the alloy defines the tone of the pipe, and thus, the instrument.
More information about the history and uses of tin can be found at http://mysite.du.edu/~jcalvert/phys/tin.htm