Of the metals known in ancient times, tin may have been in the shortest supply. Tin alloyed with copper makes bronze, a hard metal that improves weapons and tools. But, tin is difficult to find in the Mediterranean area. The Phoenicians brought tin from the "Tin Isles", thought to be Cornwall in England. Other deposits important in antiquity occur in modern Iran and China. The need to bring tin and copper together motivated trade.
Mining and Production
Tin is not very common in the Earth's crust. It is usually mined in the form of tin oxide, the mineral cassiterite. The largest tin producers in 2014 were China (42%) and Indonesia (28%). Several countries in South America also mined significant amounts. The ore is reduced to metallic tin in a furnace by relatively simple metallurgic techniques.
In the United States, where tin is not mined, some tin is recovered from recycling, mostly from tin-coated steel cans. Recovered tin in 2014 accounted for 26% of U.S. consumption.
Properties and Uses
Tin is a malleable and ductile silver-white metal. Located next to the semiconductors on the periodic table, it has some metallic and some nonmetallic properties – very pure tin at cold temperatures will turn into a not-very-metallic gray powder. For centuries after tin became plentiful through trade, it was a favorite choice of material for cheap castings. (Tin toys were common, such as this 19th century marionette wearing tin armor.)
A tin wire will make a crackling noise when bent.
Tin resists corrosion. "Tin cans" (or "tins" in Britain) are steel cans plated in tin. Tin foil was once common, but has been replaced in the kitchen by aluminum foil.
Tin is used in a variety of alloys, including bronze, pewter, and solder (below). In alloys that traditionally contain lead, the current trend is to reduce the lead content in favor of tin.
Molten tin is used as a surface on which window glass is formed ("float glass").