Thales (625-547 BC), Greek of the city of Miletus, at once physicist, astronomer and geometer, is traditionally designated as the first electrician. It is by Aristotle and Hippias that we learn that he "communicated life" to inanimate things by means of the yellow amber, referred to under the Greek term "Elektron", transcribed by the Latin electrum, which is the origin of the word electricity.
Communicating life to inanimate beings ... from his birth electricity is surrounded by mystery.
A quick glance at a contemporary dictionary tells us that amber is a "hard and brittle resin, whose color varies from pale yellow to red and from which is made of necklaces, articles for smokers, etc. ...". The photograph that accompanies this text shows us an insect prisoner of a blond stone with transparency of crystal.
Amber, mythical material of ancient Greece, has still, today, an important place in the crafts of the southern Mediterranean. He alternates on necklaces and bracelets with coral and filigree silver beads. One could believe this mineral, like the rose of sands, matured in the sun of the desert.
Yet the amber comes from the cold.For millennia, the inhabitants of the Baltic coast have been collecting this precious gift of the sea, deposited on the sand after every storm. Is its origin marine or terrestrial? From antiquity to the end of the 18th century, long controversies followed before it was admitted that amber is a fossilized resin.
Forty to fifty million years ago, in a period geologists refer to as the Eocene, a tropical climate prevailed over Europe and Scandinavia. The resin-producing pines, the source of amber, grew among date palms, redwoods, cedars, cypresses, and most of the hardwoods that we still find in our region : oaks, beeches, chestnuts. Clouds of mosquitoes, flies, wasps filled the air with their buzzing. Ants, beetles, scorpions swarmed under the moss. All this little people came to get sticked in the still fresh resin. In the spring, magnolias and rhododendrons were blooming over juniper rugs and even tea trees growing where the soil was not flooded. Water, indeed, was everywhere present. It is it who protected the resin of an oxidation which would have destroyed it. This water fed rivers that concentrated amber at their mouths, creating rich deposits.
Then the climate cooled. The glaciers that covered Northern Europe transported and deposited these sedimentary earths. The amber is still there today. When, by chance, the deposits line the current seas, erosion releases the blocks. The density of amber being very little higher than that of sea water, currents and storms bring it easily on beaches where it is convenient to fish it.
An attractive material
Sweet, warm to the touch, mysterious jewellery case of strange insects, endowed with the extraordinary gift of attraction at a distance, this stone has certainly provoked in our oldest ancestors, the fascination which is still ours.
A piece of 30,000-year-old perforated amber, probably a talisman, is considered the first object of this material associated with man. Bears, wild horses, wild boars, elk were there shaped by the men who lived in northern Europe 7000 years before our era. Neolithic farmers who inhabited the same regions three thousand years later were buried with necklaces and amulets of amber. During the next two millennia, amber spreads gradually throughout Europe, to the Mediterranean. By the same routes circulate copper and tin which will make flourish the civilizations of the Bronze Age.
At that time, real trade routes crisscross Europe.
From Jutland, they take the road to the Elbe or the Rhine and the Rhone. From the eastern Baltic, they descend the Oder and Vistula to reach the Mediterranean through the Black Sea. A sea route also exists that descends from the North Sea across the Channel and bypasses Spain to reach the Mediterranean.
The tombs under Tumulus of the princes and princesses of the Bronze Age excavated in the south of England and on the shores of the Armorican coasts have transmitted to us fabulous treasures. Amber is associated with gold to exalt the power of their owners.
In Greece, the amber of the Baltic arrives around 1600-1500 before J-C. The tombs of this period found in Mycenae contain hundreds of pearls that seem to have been imported already cut. Shortly after, this same amber is found in Egypt in the royal tombs. This trade seems to have been the specialty of the Phoenicians. It was not until the 4th century BC that Pytheas, Greek from the colony of Marseilles, gives us the story of his journey to the Baltic seas where he would have ballasted his ship with amber blocks.
The tears of the Heliades.
In Greek mythology, amber is of a divine nature. These are the rays of Helios, god of the sun, petrified when the solar star sinks into the floods. These are the tears of the Heliads, mortal nymphs, who cry every night for the death of their brother Phaeton.
Phaeton, son of Helios, had obtained permission to drive the chariot of the sun. Alas, he did not know how to master the winged horses of the team. He approached too near the earth. Mountains began to burn, fires devastated the forests, drought spread to vast areas that became deserts. Zeus, in his anger, threw his thunderbolt on Phaeton and made it sink in the floods of the Eridan River (often associated with the Po, one of the paths of entry of amber but also designating the seas bordered by the Celts and germans countries). Rushed up to the banks of the great river, the Heliades, sisters of Phaeton, remained inconsolable. The gods, out of compassion, turned them into poplars so that they could eternally accompany with their tears, the disappearance of the setting sun. Their tears, petrified in golden pearls, become the finest adornment of Greek women.
Rubens. Fall of Phaeton.
The names of the amber.
"Ellektron", that is the name that comes from the Greeks. To describe amber, the Latin gave us the term succin (succinum), derived from sucus (juice, sap). The word "amber", meanwhile, could come from a series of unfortunate translations. The Arabs used the term "Haur roumi" (poplar Roman) to designe the tree whose sap they considered as the source of succin. This word turned into "avrum" by the Latin translators of Arab authors would have been confused with "ambrum" which meant ambergris, "anbar" in Arabic. Ambergris, an odoriferous concretion forming in the intestines of sperm whales and used in perfumery, has nothing in common with yellow amber. Only the name confuses them in French as in Spanish (ambar) or in English (amber).
German uses the word "Bernstein" which refers to a "burning stone". The northern populations encountered by Pytheas were, in fact, reputed to use amber as a fuel. Slavs use the word gentar or jantar meaning amulet. The word "goularz" Breton Armorican could evoke the light (goulou) and would, in this case, close to the Greek myth.
Each language expresses, thus, one of the aspects of the myth of amber: that of a stone of sun or light, that of a stone which attracts, that of a stone which protects, that of a stone who heals. The amber has left no people indifferent.
But what do the Greek authors tell us apart from the myth? Few things really. They know, at best, that amber attracts but do not always indicate that it must first be rubbed.
The phenomenon therefore remains very superficially studied. Nothing evokes the beginning of a practice or a reflection which is related to a "scientific" behavior. Unlike chemistry, which can claim a tradition dating back to the very origins of human civilizations, electrical science has no real prehistory.
The long sleep of amber.
Improved transportation, combined with the wealth of deposits, amber is gradually losing its market value. Inevitably, its "magic" character is diminished. It is however prolonged in the form of the medicinal properties attributed to it.
Amber pearl necklaces are particularly popular among healers. Eighteenth-century academic literature commonly refers to collars worn to cure migraines, eye or throat diseases. An archeology book published at the beginning of the 20th century describes these talisman necklaces worn by some Breton families in Morbihan. The author imagines them issued from tumulus, these "fairy rocks" or "dragon caves" so often visited by their ancestors.
A piece of amber is, still today, given to chew to children from the shores of the Baltic to relieve toothaches. Our century seems to be one where old myths are reactivated. The amber has returned to the center of a trade which is adorned with the virtues of esotericism. One can buy on the internet collars which will make run to the babies of risks of accident that the simple wisdom should lead to avoid.
From amber to succin.
More academically, amber, under the name of succin is the basis of a host of remedies prepared by apothecaries until the end of the 18th century and perhaps beyond. It can be used in powder form but also in solution. Witness this recipe brought back from Copenhagen in 1673 by Thomas Bartholin, correspondent of the Paris Academy of Sciences: "to burn to ashes, the blood and the hare skin in a new vessel, the laundrying of these ashes hot dissolves the succin that one there throws". A remedy prepared with such refinements necessarily had to be effective.
If one believes the list of evils that it is supposed to cure, the succin would indeed be a true panacea. Such a universality can only, however, alert a critical mind. Scrupulous doctors question themselves. For example, Dr. J. Fothergill of the " College of Physicians of London", who considers in an article published in 1744 that only a "prejudice" has maintained its use in medicine and advocates for a sanitation enterprise in the medical science: "If Skilled and experienced people wanted to devote their free time to inform us of the inefficacy of methods and remedies similar to this one, Medicine would be enclosed in narrower limits ".
Even if we find, still today, "succinic" acid in the list of our pharmaceutical products, the succin certainly has a limited therapeutic interest. Fortunately, however, his prolonged presence in pharmacies and doctors' offices will have had the merit of saving him from oblivion.
It is therefore a physician, William Gilbert who, in the 17th century, will study the attractive properties of amber with the new look of nascent science and may, better than Thales, claim the title of "first electrician".