Amber, a hard, light, nearly transparent resinous substance, found in loose pieces in alluvial deposits, or scattered along the coast after severe storms. It was regarded by the ancient Greeks and Romans with superstition, and in mythology was spoken of as the tear drops shed by the sisters of Phaethon, and petrified as they fell into the sea. The electrical phenomena first exhibited by this substance (which the Greeks called ) added to its mystery. It was even believed by some of the philosophers to be possessed of a soul. The Arabs, noticing the same phenomena, gave it the name in their language of karabe, catch-chaff. The Romans called it succinum, and the ancient Germans glissnm. The ancient trade in amber is described in Sir George Cornewall Lewis's "Historical Survey of the Astronomy of the Ancients" (London, 1862). Amber is now generally understood to be a fossilized vegetable gum. The trees from which it exuded stood in forests of past epochs, and are now found forming strata of bituminous wood beneath beds of sand and clay. The wood is more or less impregnated with the amber; and this is also met with depending from the trunks in the form of stalactites, and again in rounded pieces mixed with pyrites and coarse sand under the layer of trees. Such a bed is worked as a mine for the amber near the coast of Prussia. The fossil stratum is from 40 to 50 feet thick, and is followed to the depth of 100 feet below the surface.
In other countries it is found in beds of brown coal and of lignite; and it is probable that the pieces of it picked up on the seashores have been washed out from the extension of these repositories beneath the waters of the sea. - On the Prussian coast of the Baltic, between Konigs-berg and Memel, amber is more abundant than in any other known locality. From this source the great demand for this material in the Mohammedan countries is principally supplied. The trade was first appropriated by the grand masters of the Teutonic order, who often paid by it the whole expense of their court. After it became a royal monopoly it was guarded by most stringent laws; "strand riders" patrolled the coast, and a peasant concealing or attempting to sell a piece of amber he had found was hanged on one of a range of gallows kept standing in terrorem. Since the beginning of the present century the government monopoly has been farmed out to private contractors. Prosecution for theft may still be instituted against persons who retain pieces of amber they have picked up, and any one passing certain limits of the beach may be punished as a trespasser.
The amber is washed ashore in considerable quantities near the village of Stiir-raen. Not only is it found in the sands on the shore, but also in the interior at a greater or less depth beneath the surface of the earth. At present the chief amber diggings in the north of Prussia are on the N. and W. coasts of Samland, N. E. of Konigsberg. These are worked by an open excavation into the mountain near its base, in which the amber-bearing bed is laid bare, sometimes presenting a thickness of 2 1/2 feet. Exhausted in one place, a new excavation exposes it in another. The fishing and picking of amber from the sea furnishes employment to great numbers of people. This is generally undertaken after a storm, when the swell of the waves is moderate. The workmen wade into the sea, and catch in nets the seaweed which is borne in by the waves. This is spread on the shore, where the women and children collect from it pieces of amber of various sizes, which is delivered by them to the superintendent. This mode of procuring amber is always less laborious and often more productive than digging. In winter, when the sea by the shore is covered with ice, the ice crust is broken through and the seaweed and amber are picked up through the opening.
The fishers frequently go out in small boats when the supply near the shore fails, and in this way a large quantity of amber is found, though it is less valuable than that gained by digging. Bag nets are used in fishing for amber, and long spears in drawing large pieces out of the surf. The production in 1869 by digging, fishing, and spearing on the coast of Samland was 700 quintals. The dredging machines at Schwarz-ort on the Cur Flats obtained 795, and the diving at Brusterort, between the Cur and the Fresh Flats, 215; making a total of 1,710 quintals, valued at 700,000 thalers. The diving apparatus used was placed in the Paris exhibition of 1867 by Capt. Rouquayrol Venayrouse, its inventor. - Amber is used almost wholly for small ornaments, as necklaces, and especially for the mouthpieces of pipes. A varnish is also prepared from it, as well as an oil used in medicine, and succinic acid, a useful reagent in chemical investigations, so called from suc-cinum, the Latin word for amber. The largest piece of amber known is one weighing 13 1/2 lbs., in the mineralogical museum at Berlin. The value of the specimens is not at all proportionate to their sizes.
A piece of a pound weight might sell for $50, while one of 13 lbs. weight would readily bring $5,000. - Amber is of a yellow brownish or whitish brown color, transparent or translucent, and resembles rosin. Its specific gravity is 1 .08. It is nearly as hard as calcareous spar, and is susceptible of a fine polish. When rubbed it becomes negatively electrical. Heated to 448° F., it melts, and then takes fire, burning with a yellow flame, and evolving much black smoke and an agreeable odor. The analyses that have been made of it give proportions of carbon varying from 70 to 80 per cent, hydrogen from 7 to 11, and oxygen from 7 to 8. Its principal ingredient is a resin insoluble in alcohol, which forms 80 to 90 per cent, of the whole. With this is found a resin soluble with difficulty in alcohol, and a trace of an odorous volatile oil. The products of its distillation are inflammable gases, water holding succinic and acetic acids and empyreumatic oil in solution (the spirits of amber of old pharmacy), sublimed succinic acid (salt of amber), and an empyreumatic oil (oil of amber). The residue is 12 to 13 per cent, of charcoal. - Pieces of amber are often met with containing the remains of insects that have become entangled in the substance when it was of thinner consistency.
Their legs and wings are sometimes seen detached from the bodies, as if the insects had struggled hard to disengage themselves from the sticky mass. These insects resemble more those of tropical climates than such as are now known in the regions where amber is found. According to Tasche (1860), there have been found in amber 5 species of Crustacea, 33 of myriapoda, and 205 of arachnida; of insects, 24 species of aptera, 60 of hemiptera, 8 of orthoptera, 87 of neurop-tera, and, according to Loew (1864), 850 of dip-tera, the latter chiefly of the proboscidean division. Leaves of fern plants, and occasionally some mineral substances, are also met with in amber. Loew believes the amber fauna to be a fragment of a larger fauna, and chiefly found in sluggish waters and ponds and in rotting wood. - It is not known when the property possessed by amber of attracting light substances when rubbed was first noticed. It is spoken of by Thales of Miletus, Theophrastus, and Pliny. Electricity is excited to such a degree in the processes of working amber into the forms in which it is sold, that the workmen are affected with nervous tremors, and are obliged to change frequently the pieces they handle, that the excited electricity may be dispersed. - Amber has recently been discovered in various parts of Courland. It is also found in several other parts of Europe, Asia, and in E. Africa. False amber is sent from India to China, and is sold for nearly the same price as the genuine article.
Amber is found at various places in the United States, occurring in the greensand formation and in the clays which succeed it, associated with lignite. The principal localities are at Amboy, N. J., at Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, and at Cape Sable in Maryland. - The commerce in amber is divided by its tints, the bright yellow transparent variety being esteemed in Europe, while the clouded whitish yellow is preferred throughout Asia, far more than the other is elsewhere, not alone for jewelry, but for general decoration of personal utensils. It forms the favorite mouthpiece of the oriental tobacco pipe, from its presumed power of resisting in-fection, the more necessary where it is discourteous to wipe a pipe passed from one person to another, as much the symbol of amity as the calumet of our Indians. Singular to say, Americans follow the orientals in preferring the whitish mottled variety. Gum copal has been substituted for amber, which it resembles, but it can be distinguished by its enclosing modern insects, while amber holds only extinct varieties; also by copal burning steadily, while amber has marked scintillation.