The Surprising Riches of Fool’s Gold

Pyrite, the stone rejected as an imposter, is the cornerstone of the modern world. /

Nobody calls Martin Frobisher “The Pyrite Pirate,” which seems a shame. But to be fair: while he was arrested three or four times for piracy, he was never convicted.

Still, he was reportedly quite good at plundering Spanish and French ships as a privateer (essentially pirates licensed by Elizabeth I’s government). But Spanish ships’ gold was coming from the New World and a larger treasure beckoned: The possible discovery of a Northwest Passage to Asia.

“It is still the only thing left undone whereby a notable mind might be made famous and remarkable,” he said. He sure sounded determined. In the words of an anonymous account (probably written by Frobisher’s chief financial backer), Frobisher vowed “rather to make a sacrifice onto God of his lyfe than to return home withowt the discovery of [China] except by compulsion of extreme force and necessity.”

By the standards of other explorers in the mid-1500s, the “force and necessity” wasn’t that extreme, but it wasn’t easy, either. A storm sank one of his ships. The crew of another ship feared the sea ice near Greenland and returned home. Finally he reached what is now Baffin Island and entered what seemed to be a strait—a northern counterpart “lyke as Magellan’s at the southwest end of the world”—only better. “That land upon his right hand as he sailed westward he judged to be the continent of Asia,” wrote George Best, who served with Frobisher on later voyages. “And there to be divided from the firm of America, which lieth upon the left hand.”

Instead, it was just a 140-mile-long bay on Baffin Island. And it was occupied by Inuit, who captured five of Frobisher’s men. Frobisher captured one of theirs in retaliation. Now “destitute of boat, barke, and company,” but enthusiastic about the “Frobisher Straits,” the seaman returned to England.

He took with him the Inuit (named Calichough, who “died of cold” shortly after arriving in England and impressing the queen with his hunting skills), “some flowers, some green grass, and one brought a piece of black stone, much like to a sea coal in color, which by the weight seemed to be some kind of metal or mineral.” When a gentlewoman “by chance threw and burned” the rock in a fire, “it glistered with a bright Marquesset of gold.” Best writes that gold refiners “indeed found it to hold gold, and that very richly for the quantity. … The hope of the same gold ore to be found kindled a greater opinion in the hearts of many to advance the voyage again.” This time, the voyage had no pretense of finding a Northwest Passage—there was gold in the north as the Spanish had found in the south.

Except (as you know because I already told you this article is about pyrite), there wasn’t any gold. Frobisher’s backers had taken the ore to several refiners before they found one who claimed it contained gold. And when Frobisher returned from a second voyage with 140 tons of “gold ore,” and from a third voyage with 1,350 tons, there was no gold in it either. The stone, carried over more than 2,500 miles of dangerous sea, was used for road repair.

This is the kind of story we associate with pyrite, a mix of iron and sulfur (FeS2) that is one of the most common minerals on earth. (It’s the most common sulfide mineral on the planet’s surface.) “By no mineral substance have been more deceived than by iron pyrites, which is very appropriately denominated fools’ gold,” Congregational pastor-turned-geologist Edward Hitchcock wrote in his 1840 Elementary Geology. “When in a pure state, its resemblance to gold in color is often so great that it is no wonder those unacquainted with minerals should suppose it to be that metal. … This delusion would be dissipated in a moment were the eye of a geologist to rest on such spots or were the elementary principles of geology more widely diffused in the community.”

Hitchcock’s textbook, which devotes few words to pyrite and focuses almost entirely on amateurs’ misidentifying it, came just a decade after the Quaker journal The Friend first connected the mineral and the moniker fool’s gold in print. Before 1829, fool’s gold was just a metaphor for anything overvalued. Now the two words are essentially synonymous, with pyrite perpetually cast in the role of imposter and con artist.

But it has its lovers. In 1725, German mineralogist Johann Friedrich Henkel published a 1,000-page opus called Pyritologia, published in English with the subtitle “A History of the Pyrites, the Principal Body of the Mineral Kingdom.” Nearly 300 years later, English geochemist David Rickard has published a shorter volume with an even more ambitious claim. In Pyrite (Oxford University Press, 2015), Rickard repeatedly and convincingly argues that pyrite has been misunderstood. It’s not a shiny and worthless fake. Instead, it’s “the mineral that made the modern world.”

“Pyrite is fundamentally responsible for the technical and social changes we have experienced,” he writes. “It is at the core of our civilization.”

He literally means civilization—and when he says that it “made the modern world,” he means essentially everything that came after cavemen. Pyrite is Greek for firestone, and the mineral was broadly used by Stone Age peoples as a kind of portable lighter. It allowed humans to travel and populate the earth, Rickard argues. It let us live in cold climates. It let us cook and be active after dark. It let us create cultures with stories and songs around fires. It provided the ash and the red and yellow ochres for the first human artworks. “The first mineral sought by ancient prospectors may not have been the exotic gold and silver of later civilizations but everyday pyrite,” he says.

It’s in more modern eras where Rickard’s argument really takes off. Pyrite is one of the world’s main sources of sulfur: We get about 7 million tons of sulfur from about 14 million of the 180 million tons of pyrite we mine each year. We use most of that sulfur for sulfuric acid, and most of that sulfuric acid for making fertilizer. The difference between the 60 million people living in Britain today and the 6 million who lived there before the Industrial Revolution, Rickard says, is largely a factor of global food production, fed by fertilizer, fed by pyrite.

We use sulfuric acid or items directly dependent on it countless times a day without thinking of it, from our car batteries and paints to detergents and water treatment. “A nation’s industrial strength can be indicated by its sulfuric acid production,” Rickard says. And he argues that the modern chemical industry began when sulfuric acid made from pyrite was used to produce pure alum for dyes. It was the first time humans created a way to create a chemical compound and purify it.

Sulfur made from pyrite also created the pharmaceutical industry. Most early medicines were based on plants, but the discovery of the health benefits of sulfur-based compounds, especially in China, created the need for specialists, manufacturing, and industry.

Pyrite plays a starring role in Rickard’s account of modern warfare, too. True, potassium nitrate (saltpeter) is the most famous part of gunpowder, but pyrite-derived sulfur serves as the fuel and lowers the temperature necessary for ignition. Gunpowder wouldn’t have boomed as it did without pyrite. (One of Rickard’s few personal anecdotes in his book is his regret at having not patented a “pyrite-like iron sulfide” he first created—only to see someone else use it exploding in bright reds during the 2004 Beijing Olympics fireworks.)

True, for much of Rickard’s account, pyrite-based sulfur threatens to upstage pyrite itself for the title of the substance that “made the modern world,” but he also convincingly argues that its study led “to the acceptance of the revolutionary idea that substances have fixed compositions. This, in turn, was the evidential basis for the modern atomic theory.”

And it may be that pyrite’s other benefits will soon outweigh its history as a source of sulfur. All 9 million metric tons of sulfur produced in the US are recovered as an industrial byproduct, mostly at oil refineries. The US doesn’t mine pyrite anymore. But the solar energy industry is booming (or at least seems always to be at the edge of doing so), and Rickard notes that pyrite absorbs 100 times as much light as silicon, the substance used in most solar cells. He says it’s cheaper to extract, too. Pyrite also provides the cathodes in lithium batteries. Whether you’re reading this article on a screen or on paper, you’re doing so because of pyrite.

In short, there’s scarcely a part of modern life Rickard sees untouched by the sulfide, and he sees a shiny future for it as well. It may have frequently been thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless, as Frobisher’s ore was. But fool’s gold is only foolish if you focus on whether it’s gold (though if you’ll allow one last salvo for the mineral: it turns out that most gold today is produced from pyritic ores). From Stone Age firestarters to Industrial Age inventors to Digital Age globalists, wise men have built kingdoms upon it. Gold isn’t the only valuable thing that glisters.

Ted Olsen is editor of The Behemoth.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 45 / March 31, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from March 31, 2016

    Issue 45: The fun in naming, how pyrite changed the world, and why it’s fine that piratebush didn’t change much of anything. /

  2. Our First Mission Isn’t Finished

    There’s plenty left to name in the sometimes silly, always vast field of taxonomy. /

  3. Let Us Now Praise Obscure, Useless Plants

    God and I delight in piratebush like he delights in me. /

  4. Fetal Heartbeat

    “like the wings of millions of monarchs returned” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 45: Links to amazing stuff.

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