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William Whewell
(24 May 1794 - 6 Mar 1866)

English scholar and philosopher known for his survey of the scientific method and for creating scientific words, including the word “scientist.”


William Whewell
“Gold and iron…are the rulers of the world”

Illustrated Quote - Large (800 x 400 px)

“Gold and iron at the present day, as in ancient times, are the rulers of the world; and the great events in the world of mineral art are not the discovery of new substances, but of new and rich localities of old ones.”
— William Whewell
Lecture, 'The General Bearing of the Great Exhibition on the Progress of Art and Science' (Nov 1851)

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William Whewell wrote the quote above in an extensive lecture that he read to the London Society of Arts on 26 Nov 1851. His topic was 'The General Bearing of the Great Exhibition on the Progress of Art and Science.' He offered his reflections as a spectator of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, in Hyde Park, London, shortly after it closed. (It was open in 1851 from 1 May to 15 Oct.)

The 'Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition of 1851' series took place at the suggestion of H.R.H. Prince Albert, the President of the Society. Those subscribing this address included Robert Stephenson, Isambard K. Brunel, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday.

While Whewell was considering the classifications into which areas of the exhibition were divided, he remarked about Minerals:

“In the class of Minerals, all the great members of the class are still what they were in ancient times. No doubt a number of new metals and mineral substances have been discovered; and these have their use; and of these the Exhibition presented fine examples. But still, their use is upon a small scale. Gold and iron, at the present day, as in ancient times, are the rulers of the world; and the great events in the world of mineral art are not the discovery of new substances, but of new and rich localities of old ones,—the opening of the treasures of the earth in Mexico and Peru in the sixteenth century, in California and Australia in our own day.”

The treasures that he was refering to, was gold. By the early 1800s, the gold production in Mexico and South America was greater than all Europe combined.1 The discoveries in Whewell’s day were the Australian Gold Rush (Ophir, 19 Feb 1851) and the California Gold Rush (24 Jan 1848, Sutter's Mill).

Perhaps if Whewell were here in our modern day, he may have been interested that there is increasing interest in developing sources of  lithium in of increasing importance for electric vehicle batteries. The so-called rare earth metals are sought to make the strong magnets needed in the generators of wind turbines and the motors of electric vehicles. As production of green energy replaces the use of fossil fuels, these minerals may become significant in the coming years, though they are not as abundant as iron.

1 Emma Willard, Ancient Geography: As Connected with Chronology, and Preparatory to the Study of Ancient History (1821, 1835), 156. (source)

See also:
  • Science Quotes by William Whewell.
  • 24 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Whewell's birth.
  • William Whewell - context of quote “Gold and iron…are the rulers of the world” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • William Whewell: Theory of Scientific Method, by William Whewell. - book suggestion.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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