Sample of gold, c 1890.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Gold is a soft, yellow, very unreactive metallic element. The rarity and appearance of gold, together with its malleability, which makes it ideal for shaping into ornaments and jewellery, have made it highly sought after throughout history. In the Middle Ages alchemy, the precursor to modern chemistry, was exclusively devoted to finding ways of converting other les scarce metals into gold. The discovery of deposits of gold in Australia and North America in the 19th century sparked huge gold rushes of prospectors bent on making their fortunes. Today, most of the metal is mined in South Africa and Rusia. This sample is from a collection of chemical elements bequeathed to the Science Museum, London, by Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (1813-1891).