The earliest documented reference to rust is by a Roman general fighting on the Blue Nile two thousand years ago. He complained that corroded parts were making his catapults more dangerous to his own men than to the enemy. The natural philosopher Pliny the Elder called rust ferrum corrumpitur, or ‘spoiled iron’, describing it as the price nature extracted for the strength of metal tools and weapons, ‘making nothing in the world more mortal than that which is most hostile to mortality’.
Jonathan Waldman, in this odd, lively book about corrosion, paints it as the spectre haunting civilisation, the unstoppable, undying foe of progress: ‘Rust represents the disordering of the modern.’ Annually it costs the United States more than all natural disasters combined, a total of about 3 per cent of its GDP, or $1,500 per person. It brings down bridges and aircraft, corrupts concrete, blows up water heaters and disables fire sprinklers. Its power to undo man’s doings is biblically proverbial: ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal,’ reads Matthew 6:19.
One way or another, sooner or later, rust is going to win: it’s what we get for enjoying so much oxygen in the air and water. Only a handful of rare earth metals do not corrode – strictly speaking ‘rusting’ happens only to iron, but Waldman happily uses it to