Bronze is any of a broad range of copper alloys, usually with tin as the main additive, but sometimes with other elements such as phosphorus, manganese, aluminum, or silicon. (See table below.) It was particularly significant in antiquity, giving its name to the Bronze Age. "Bronze," in turn, is perhaps ultimately taken from the Persian word "berenj," meaning "brass".
Bronze was significant to any culture that encountered it. It was one of the most innovative alloys of mankind. Tools, weapons, armour, and various building materials like decorative tiles made of bronze were harder and more durable than their stone and copper ("Chalcolithic") predecessors. In early use, the impurity arsenic sometimes created a superior alloy; this is termed arsenical bronze.
The two ores are rarely found together (exceptions include one ancient site in Thailand and one in Iran), so serious bronze work has always involved trade. In Europe, the major source for tin was Great Britain's deposits of ore in Cornwall. Phoenician traders visited Great Britain to trade goods from the Mediterranean for tin.
Though bronze is stronger (harder) than wrought iron, the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age; this happened because iron was easier to find. Bronze was still used during the Iron Age, but for many purposes the weaker wrought iron was found to be sufficiently strong. Archaeologists suspect that a serious disruption of the tin trade precipitated the transition. The population migrations around 1200 – 1100 BC reduced the shipping of tin around the Mediterranean (and from Great Britain), limiting supplies and raising prices. As ironworking improved, iron became cheaper, and cultures learned how to make steel, which is stronger than bronze and holds a sharper edge longer.
Copper and its alloys have a huge variety of uses that reflect their versatile physical, mechanical, and chemical properties. Some common examples are the high electrical conductivity of pure copper, the excellent deep-drawing qualities of cartridge case brass, the low-friction properties of bearing bronze, the resonant qualities of bell bronze, and the resistance to corrosion by sea water of several bronze alloys.
In the twentieth century, silicon was introduced as the primary alloying element, creating an alloy with wide application in industry and the major form used in contemporary statuary. Aluminum is also used for the structural metal aluminum bronze.
It is also widely used for cast metal sculpture (see bronze sculpture). Many common bronze alloys have the unusual and very desirable property of expanding slightly just before they set, thus filling in the finest details of a mould. Bronze parts are tough and typically used for bearings, clips, electrical connectors and springs.
Bronze also has very little metal-on-metal friction, which made it invaluable for the building of cannon where iron cannonballs would otherwise stick in the barrel. It is still widely used today for springs, bearings, bushings, automobile transmission pilot bearings, and similar fittings, and is particularly common in the bearings of small electric motors. Phosphor bronze is particularly suited to precision-grade bearings and springs. It is also used in guitar and piano strings.
Unlike steel, bronze struck against a hard surface will not generate sparks, so it (along with beryllium copper) is used to make hammers, mallets, wrenches and other durable tools to be used in explosive atmospheres or in the presence of flammable vapours.
In 1623, an Armenian man in Turkey named Avedis Zildjian, an alchemist, was attempting to form base metals into gold. Upon dropping an ingot on the ground, he was amazed at how well it rang. He was given the title Zildjian (Son of Cymbal Maker) by the Turkish Sultan. Today, the Avedis Zildjian Corporation is the largest maker of cymbals in the world.
Modern cymbals consist of several types of bronze, the most common being B20 bronze, which is roughly 20% tin, 80% copper, with traces of silver. Zildjian and Sabian use this alloy for their professional lines. A Swiss Company, Paiste, uses a softer B8 bronze which is made from 8% tin and 92% copper in nearly all of their cymbals. (Zildjian and Sabian use this metal too, in their budget priced cymbals).
Generally speaking, as the tin content goes up, the pitch becomes lower. Meinl uses 16% tin 84% copper cymbals, which has a pitch roughly in between B8 and B20.
Bronze is also used for strings of various instruments such as the piano and the guitar.