An Article from the April 2002 JOM: A Hypertext-Enhanced Article

The author of this article is with the Department of Mining, Metallurgical, and Materials Engineering at Laval University.
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Feature: Historical Insight

Postage Stamps: A Convergence of Metallurgy, Art, and History

Fathi Habashi

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Postage stamps have been used around the world to commemorate, in miniature, significant events and people, including those of importance in the history of metals and mineral production. From the presence of gold artifacts in an ancient Egyptian tomb to the role of uranium in nuclear power, stamps have captured the evolution of metallurgical processes. This article highlights some of those stamps.


Postage stamps are more than a payment for mail service—they are a means of communication through which many countries have recorded important events, honored worthy individuals, and described interesting facts. A variety of historical facts, some of which may not be easily located in history or science books, can be found on stamps. In addition, stamps have artistic value; they are created by artists and are also a means for propagating culture in areas such as music, painting, sculpture, and nature. They are used every day and can be found everywhere.

In addition to the trade catalogs, books, and philatelic journals available for collectors, a surprisingly extensive literature on stamps has been written by scientists for fellow scientists. The American Chemical Society organized two exhibits on stamps: one in 1990 titled “Chemistry on Stamps,” and the other in 1993 titled “Postage Stamps Related to Science.” Numerous news items on this topic also have appeared from time to time in Chemical & Engineering News. A journal devoted to chemists and physicists titled Philatelia Chimica et Physica with a subtitle, the Journal of the Chemistry and Physics on Stamps Study Unit, has appeared quarterly since 1978.


Archeological finds are a reminder that metals were produced and used by ancient people. For example, the discovery of the treasures in the tomb of Tut Ank Amoun (about 1355 BC) in 1922 by the British archeologist Howard Carter was sensational because it was the first tomb discovered that was not looted by thieves. It contained a bounty of golden objects of extreme beauty. Fifty years later, in 1972, an exhibition of some of the objects was displayed in London. To mark the event, a stamp was issued showing a gold statue of the young king (Figure 1).

The first use of copper was around 4000 BC, and the Bronze Age came a few centuries later, when it was discovered that adding tin or tin ore produced a higher quality metal that was easier to melt. The Romans actively exploited the copper mines in Cyprus; a stamp issued in 1994 shows a map of Cyprus, a copper ingot as produced in ancient times, and a sailing boat for shipping the product (Figure 2). Another stamp showed copper mineral (chalcopyrite), an ingot dated 1400–950 BC, and a bronze jug from the Roman period (Figure 3).

Ancient civilizations produced and used iron much later than copper or bronze, probably because iron has a higher melting point than copper and it must be worked while red-hot, while copper can be worked at room temperature. The Delhi Iron Pillar, which is composed of nearly pure iron and weighs seven tonnes, dates back to the fourth century AD (Figure 4). It is a masterwork of Indian metallurgists that could be simulated in Europe no less than 1,000 years later.

The Catalan forge (Figure 5) came into use about 700 AD in Andorra, in northeast Spain. The furnace had built-up sides of stone forming a short shaft into which charcoal and iron ore were loaded. Air was forced into the charcoal by bellows through a nozzle at the bottom of the furnace. The air produced higher temperatures and allowed larger amounts of ore to be smelted at one time. However, the temperature was still not high enough to melt the iron, and the result was still wrought iron. In 1988, Canada issued a stamp commemorating the 250th anniversary of its first iron works, “Les Forges du Saint Maurice,” which is located near Trois-Rivières in the Province of Québec. The site has been renovated and kept as a museum; it was recognized in 1996 by the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy, and Petroleum as a National Heritage. The stamp illustrates a smith at work (Figure 6).


In 1709, the Englishman Abraham Darby succeeded in using coke (obtained by heating coal in a restricted air supply) to reduce iron ore. Darby was able to build bigger furnaces because coke could support a larger load of iron ore than charcoal without crushing and extinguishing the fire. With iron ore and coal in abundance, iron production moved from the wooded districts of Sussex in southern England to the coalfields of the Midlands, South Wales, and Scotland, and the industry entered a new era. Darby’s factory was the first to use a Newcomen steam engine. Thus, as manual labor gave way to machines driven by engines, the industrial revolution began. By the 1750s, Darby’s coke-based process was widespread. Darby’s grandson, also named Abraham, was responsible for designing, casting, and constructing the world’s first metal bridge from cast iron at Ironbridge, over the River Severn in Shropshire (Figure 7). It used nearly 400 tonnes of iron and was opened in 1781.

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The Chemical Revolution followed shortly after the Industrial Revolution. It was the French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) who, in 1777, explained the phenomenon of combustion and clarified the smelting process for producing metals from ores. Lavoisier is shown with his wife in a 1788 painting by the French artist Jacques Louis David. The painting, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, was replicated on a stamp issued in 1989 by Maldives to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution (Figure 8). Lavoisier was executed during the revolution because of his association with the hated tax-collecting system.


The United States in 1961 issued a stamp honoring Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), the Scotch-American industrialist and philanthropist. By 1900, the Carnegie Steel Company produced one quarter of all U.S. steel. In 1901, it merged with the Federal Steel Company and others to form United States Steel, at the time the largest corporation in the world.

Coke, an essential component for iron production in the blast furnace, is produced by heating coal, in absence of air, in special ovens. A stamp issued by Bhutan in 1969 illustrated the process by showing old beehive ovens, which were used at the beginning of the century, but have been long obsolete. A Chinese stamp shows a large coke-making battery where coal is heated in retorts. The stamp also shows coke being quenched as it comes out of the retorts.

The modern iron blast furnace has appeared on several stamps. For example, Austria in 1961 commemorated the blast furnace on the 15th anniversary of the nationalization of the steel industry (Figure 9). Henry Bessemer’s invention in 1856 was a revolutionary step in steelmaking that immediately displaced the puddling process. Bessemer, in a process that required no fuel, was able to obtain steel in a few minutes by blowing air through the molten pig iron, as compared to a few days in the puddling process. This tremendous invention is shown on a stamp issued by Sweden showing one of Bessemer’s first converters. A new technology was introduced 100 years later at the Vöest plant in Linz, Austria. An Austrian stamp shows a cross section of the converter and the oxygen lance used to introduce the oxygen for the reaction (Figure 10). The process became known as the LD Process.

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In terms of annual production, aluminum follows iron and steel. Venezuela, in 1988, celebrated the tenth anniversary of Venalum, the National Aluminum Corporation, by issuing two stamps, one showing the interior of the plant and the other, a drawing of an electrolytic cell (Figure 11). Chile, the largest copper producer in the world, issued stamps on the occasion of nationalizing its copper industry. One in 1970 shows the Chilean star inside the logo of the Kennecott Minerals Company; that symbol is also the alchemical symbol for copper. The other stamp shows a standing worker holding a copper ingot. Chile’s role as a leading producer of copper by hydrometallurgical processes is shown on a stamp titled “Cobre” and another titled “Mineria.” Finland issued a stamp in 1983 depicting a flash-smelting furnace in recognition of the innovation made by Outokumpu engineers to the copper industry. South Africa, where most of the world’s gold is produced, issued a stamp showing the pouring of molten gold (Figure 12). A similar stamp was issued by Zimbabwe in 1995.

South Africa issued a stamp in 1977 titled “Uranium Development” to mark 25 years of nuclear power plants; the stamp shows an atom symbol. The Gabon Republic issued a stamp in 1965 showing the operation at Mounana, where, at Oklo mine, natural fission was discovered along with traces of naturally occurring plutonium.


Georgius Agricola (1494–1555) (Figure 13) was the first to compile a thorough study of mining, minerals, and metallurgy, although he was trained as a medical doctor. His books on mining and metallurgy were widely used for over two centuries. Agricola became interested in mining and metallurgy when he was appointed a town physician at Joachimsthal in Bohemia. Joachimsthal (now Jachymovy in Czech Republic) is located on the eastern slope of the Erzgebrige, in the midst of what was then the most important silver mining district of Central Europe. On the 400th anniversary of his death, stamps were issued in Agricola’s honor by the former German Democratic Republic in 1955.

Jean Jacques Dony (1759–1819) (Figure 14), a Belgian priest in Liége, succeeded in 1805 in producing metallic zinc from Belgian calamine ore using the horizontal retort process. He built a plant in 1837 and founded a company that exists today as Société de la Vieille Montagne. Henri Saint-Claire Deville (1818–1881) (Figure 15) appears on a stamp issued by France in 1955. Deville was responsible for improving an aluminum production process initiated in Germany involving the reaction of potassium on anhydrous aluminum chloride. Deville’s process was used in France from 1854 until the advent of the cheaper electrolytic process in 1886. The stamp also shows the use of aluminum in cars, airplanes, and the electrical industry. Sidney Gilchrist Thomas (1850–1885) (Figure 16) was an English metallurgist who, in 1879, solved the problem of removing phosphorus from pig iron by using a magnesia lining instead of silica in the Bessemer converter. A stamp was issued by Luxembourg in 1979 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his discovery.

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F. Habashi, D. Hendricker, and C. Gignac, Mining and Metallurgy on Postage Stamps (Sainte Foy, Québec, Canada: Métallurgie Extractive Québec, 1999). Distributed by Laval University Bookstore “Zone”.

For more information, contact F. Habashi, Laval University, Department of Mining, Metallurgical, and Materials Engineering, Québec City, Canada G1K 7P4; (418) 651-5774;

Copyright held by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, 2002

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