Mercury shares its name not only as an element but as Planet. Its name transcends other elements, perhaps due to its mystical appearance and composition. Mercury is one of the only metals that is liquid in room temperature. (Excluding Gallium since its achieves liquid state at a slightly higher temperature than room temperature which is great for pranking. ) Mercury is also known as a quicksilver due to its mesmerizing appearance as a liquid like silver. It was also formerly known as hydrargyrum, which is Latin for watery silver hence its elemental symbol being Hg.
While mercury behaves like a liquid it is about 13. 6 times denser than water. When spilled, mercury keeps to itself and is collected fairly easy due to its density and its electron configuration levels being filled like noble gases. This makes it hard to bond with other elements since it doesn’t need any electrons and gives it a low melting temperature. Mercury, however, can also be found as a solid such as ore mines. They are only of 0. 08 parts per million of the earth’s crust making it a rare element. The most common ore is found in is HgS, cinnabar, and the most rare being a pure mercury ore.
It is from cinnabar that pure mercury can be distilled from and has revolutionized history. Before getting into Mercury’s history one should familiarize with its family on the periodic table. Mercury lies within the transitional metals more specifically, group 12, period 6. This knowledge provides additional characteristics to mercury since transitional metals tend to be good conductors of electricity and heat, malleable, ductile, have high melting and boiling points, valence electrons can be found in more than one outer shell(different oxidation states), and appear a pearly blue color in room temperature.
However, unlike other members of its family mercury is not found in a solid state. Regardless, it shares more similarities with its family than differences. History has revered mercury for its incandescent presence and for its versatile uses. Cinnabar (HgS, the natural compound mercury can be largely found in) was found in caves of France in Spain about 30,000 years ago as paint (Vermilion) from Paleolithic painters due to its bright red pigment. Mercury colored the world of the primal people and it didn’t stop there.
Many people believed mercury contained miraculous traits like immortality or forming gold. An emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Di believed that ingesting mercury pills would bless him eternal life. While mercury appears benign it can be quite fatal once in enters the human body. The emperor took these pills, a mixture of mercury and jade, and sought eternal death rather than life. China, however, was not the only civilization to believe (that) mercury had healing properties. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all used mercury in cosmetics and ointments due to its pretty front.
Romans, on the other hand, found other uses for mercury in mining fields. Mercury can form amalgams with almost every metal and gold was not the exception. The process of mining the amalgams and distilling out the mercury(since it could easily achieve liquid state) left people with gold or with other desired metals. This innovation sparked riches and curiousity in people but it also carried many health risks. The Romans employed slaves into the mine shafts and many died due to mercury poisoning the lungs or seeping into the skin.
Despite these side effects it did not deter the early scientist, or known as the ‘alchemists’‘. Many alchemists believed that adjusting the proportion of sulfur in mercury compounds would produce different metals(in which many hoped to achieve to create gold. ). Of course, early alchemists could not achieve their whimsical goals due to their lack of understanding of how elements function. Jumping further into the future, explorers like Luis and Clarke also were under the illusion that mercury would cure illnesses.
They carried a set of mercury laxatives called ‘Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills” that were invented during the late 1700’s in order to treat yellow fever. While this mercury-chloride mixture rid of the potential illness it also rid the rest of the patient. Explorers of the early Americas still carried these laxatives and have allowed future historians to track these explorers through their mercury suffused excrements found in the soil. Mercury also achieved a position in literature when early hat makers of the United States used mercuric chloride (HgCl2) on the tanning leather for hats.
This compound is a white crystalline solid that was originally used in treating syphillis. The compound would be broken down into a fine powder and would dust off the hats in hopes to wear off moths and prevent the hat from fraying. After continuous use of the hat, people seemed to become ill and mentally unstable coining the term, “Mad as hatter. ” This phrase inspired one of the literary writers, Lewis Carroll to write about a certain character, the Mad Hatter. It seems no one could predict the effects of mercury even in different states like a liquid cosmetic or solid mixture of different elements.
Regardless, people have utilized mercury in many aspects hoping to bring out the most functional use of the metal. In more modern times, mercury has become quite intimate with society. It can be found in lamps, temperature measuring tools, in food, and even in fillings at the dentist. The controversy begins, of how close one should get with mercury without it killing society. Fluorescent lamps contain a mercury vapor and when an electric current runs through, it gives off an invisible radiation that bounces off the phosphor coat of the bulb. Thus, allowing the bulb to glow and allowing consumers to have light.
While there are alternatives to mercury fluorescent lamps, it seems to be popular with consumers so it’s here to stay. Mercury can found in its pure form in thermometers since it sensitive to heat and has a high melting and boiling temperature. It’s ideal to use mercury in its liquid form and when the vacuum of space where the mercury is filled with is topped off with nitrogen it increases its ability to react to temperature change. Not only is the silver color of Mercury ideal for witnessing the temperature but it also does not stick to the glass of the thermometer.
However, after recent studies mercury filled thermometers are becoming rarer due to the potential health risks it carries. Once people began to find that mercury is capable of poisoning, a more cautious attitude was built around it. Which is also why many dentists had to find other metals to replace their fillings. Many fillings are composed of amalgams that include an alloy of copper, silver, and tin with liquid mercury being the binder of these metals. By weight, about 50% of this dental amalgam is mercury which caused many to show fear and caution due to the danger of mercury vapor entering the lungs.
The FDA states the level of mercury contained in these fillings are harmless but many people still steer away from such amalgams. The current relationship of mercury and people tend to walk a fine line since the traits of mercury have been exposed, beneficial or detrimental. It seems in the past people blindly admired Mercury without knowledge of its noxious effects but now civilization has advanced enough to recognize the unique potential of mercury in spite of its risks. Mercury has a profuse amount of functions in society and can only be expected to find more uses in the future.