20 Things You Didn't Know About... Gold

Anti-inflammatory, protector of astronaut eyes, and excrement of the gods

By LeeAundra Temescu
Nov 15, 2007 12:00 AMMay 17, 2019 9:05 PM


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1  Gold was probably the first metal worked by prehistoric man. Decorative gold objects found in Bulgaria date back to 4,000 B.C., so the gold age actually overlaps with the Stone Age.

2  In the 7th century B.C., dentists in Italy used gold wire to attach fake teeth, and gold fillings were recommended for cavities as far back as the 16th century.

3  When the Spaniards landed in Peru in 1532, the Incan Empire had one of the largest collections of gold ever amassed. After the Incan king Atahuallpa was captured by the conquistadores, he offered, as ransom, to fill a 22-by-18-foot room with gold as high as he could reach.

4  The Spanish killed him anyway.

5  The Aztec word for gold is teocuitlatl, which means “excrement of the gods.”

6  Conrad Reed found a 17-pound lump of gold on his father’s North Carolina farm in 1799, the first documented discovery of gold in the United States. They used the rock as a doorstop for three years before a local jeweler identified it.

7  Reed’s father sold it to the jeweler for $3.50, less than one-thousandth of its true value. Eventually Reed caught on—the lump would be worth more than $100,000 today—and started the nation’s first commercial gold mine.

8  Contrary to what James Bond told you in Goldfinger, there’s no such thing as “skin suffocation.” But the film crew didn’t know that: When they covered actress Shirley Eaton in gold paint, they left bare a small patch on her tummy.

9  Gold is extremely malleable and ductile. A one-ounce piece can be beaten into a translucent sheet five-millionths of an inch thick or drawn out into 50 miles of wire five micrometers thick—one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.

10  The metal is also virtually indestructible and has been highly valued throughout history, so humans have always recycled it. Upwards of 85 percent of all the gold ever found is still being used today.

11  Gold foil was wrapped around the Apollo lunar landing modules to protect the astronauts from radiation. A thin gold film over astronauts’ visors is still used to protect their eyes from glare.

12  For more than 70 years, the standard treatment for rheumatoid arthritis was regular injections of a liquid suspension of gold, which acts as an anti-inflammatory. Doctors still don’t know why.

13  The eternal quest of alchemists—to change base metals into gold—was actually achieved to a certain degree in Soviet nuclear reactors, where radioactivity transformed some lead nuclei into gold.

14  Gold is green: Windows in some apartment buildings are coated with gold to help reflect sun in the summer and retain heat in the winter.

15  Actually getting the metal is not so green. Gold mines spew cyanide into waterways and nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the air; in 2000, a cyanide spill at a Romanian mine made the local water for 2.5 million people undrinkable.

16  Australian researchers have discovered microorganisms that “eat” trace amounts of gold within rocks and then deposit them into larger nuggets. Mining companies are looking to use the critters instead of cyanide to pull gold from ore, which would be much less environmentally destructive.

17  Nice threads: In terms of gold reserves, the United States has the world’s largest hoard. But if ornamentation is included, India takes the title—over 20 percent of the decorative gold used throughout the world is in the thread in Indian saris.

18  The largest reservoirs of gold on the surface of the earth, an estimated 10 billion tons, are the oceans. Unfortunately, there is no practical way to get it out.

19  That’s chump change compared with the amount of gold in outer space. In 1999, the NEAR spacecraft showed that a single asteroid, Eros, contains more gold than has ever been mined on Earth.

20  Calm down, space cowboys: There’s no way we can retrieve that gold either.

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