Believe it or not, asbestos and its peculiar properties were known and used to some extent many centuries before Charlemagne reigned. In fact, the ancients found many uses for cloth woven from this rock fiber. Among the most curious of old-time uses was the custom of making sacred lamp wicks from asbestos cloth. These wicks were for the lamps that burned “eternally” in temples and on altars. The lamps were fed continually with oil, and the wicks were not consumed with fire, so there was a perpetual flame, much to the mystification of the people who worshipped in those pagan temples. Small wonder, then, that asbestos was considered a magic substance even in early times.
Some twenty-five hundred years ago the Greeks used asbestos cloth as a funeral shroud for their kings. Thus, when a Greek king died, he was wrapped in the cloth of stone and cremated, after which the ashes were carefully removed from the asbestos wrapping. The shroud was then returned to its storage vault until the next king died. Indeed, the name, asbestos, comes from a Greek compound word meaning inextinguishable or incombustible . The ancient scientists and philosophers, however, never found out just what asbestos really was. In fact, one of the most learned Romans of all time, Pliny the Elder, stated that asbestos cloth was obtained from a flower. This flower, he hastened to explain, grew in the desert, and became so habituated to the desert’s fiery temperatures that it could resist heat and flames.
Actually, asbestos is a mineral…and one of the most remarkable inorganic products in Nature. It usually occurs in veins, most often in serpentine rock, although in its natural state asbestos is so dense and heavy that it resembles common stone. Mineralogically speaking, most varieties of asbestos are complex compounds made up mainly of the oxides of magnesium and silicon. Its fire-resisting properties come mainly from the silica in its makeup. Of all the many minerals that Nature has compounded out of similar materials, asbestos is unique in that it is the only one with a fibrous, flax-like structure. This fiber structure, however, is apparent only after the hard, compressed asbestos “rock” has been picked-or “teased”-apart. It then breaks down into a mass of delicate, interlacing, light-colored threads, which closely resemble silk fibers and are somewhat soapy to the touch. When a strand of asbestos fiber is viewed under a microscope of good resolving power, the smallest fiber visible will show a “branching out” at its ends, which is evidence of a still further parting into finer and ever finer fibers. Geologists are fairly in accord that the characteristic structure of asbestos is due to the fact that, at one lime, the original rock (which was not then fibrous) was heated until nearly liquid. Then the rock cooled, shrank, and later was squeezed under heavy pressure. This combination of forces, acting upon the original rock, is believed to have brought about the formation of the silk-like fibers.