National Geographic : 1946 Apr
India's Treasures Helped the Allies BY JOHN FISCHER T HREE of India's ancient treasures helped the United States build the most modern and deadly weapons of war. They are beryl, a gem which can be alloyed with copper and aluminum to make them as hard as steel, and which also was used in mak ing the atomic bomb; sheet mica, indispensable for every aircraft engine and military radio; and block talc, a substance which is especially suitable for making radar and other electronic equipment. America's wartime need for these strategic materials was so urgent that hundreds of thou sands of pounds were flown from India by the Air Transport Command, sometimes with pri orities higher than those given to major gen erals. They made up a small but critically important part of the fabulous resources, rang ing from goatskins to high-grade steel, which India poured into the war machine of the United Nations.* Beryl Treasured by Fabulous Princes Beryl, a gem closely related to the emerald, has been treasured by Indian princes for cen turies, and necklaces of this milky-green semi precious stone still are the chief adornment of many a Rajput lady. In more recent years, however, scientists have discovered that it is even more valuable as an alloying metal.t Many of our American fighting planes were equipped with beryllium bronze bearings, which wear ten times as long in some uses as bearings of the traditional copper alloys. In explosives plants, where a spark from a steel hammer or screw driver might cause a dis aster, beryllium copper tools can be substi tuted; and in a long list of other uses the jewel alloy has proved valuable (page 502). Most important of these was its use to start the flow of uranium neutrons producing atomic fission. Although scattered deposits have been found in Argentina, Brazil, and Australia, a great part of the United Nations' supply of this vital mineral came from the arid Rajputana hills of western India. In this region, pro duction of beryl resembles an Easter-egg hunt more than it does ordinary mining. Throughout some 10,000 square miles of dusty, thorn-covered semidesert, chunks of beryllium ore may turn up almost anywhere among the gravel of a dry stream bed, in the shaft of an abandoned mica mine, or em bedded in the stony outcroppings of the low ridges which are known in this part of India as "dykes." Moreover, although beryl of gem quality is easy to recognize, ordinary beryl may look much like any other kind of rock, except that the crystals are six-sided. Frequently the hardest problem of the native beryl prospector is to learn to tell a piece of valuable ore from a worthless lump of quartz or feldspar. When the first American buyer, a tough, good-natured Texan named Harry Witt, went into Rajputana in 1942, he stirred up more excitement than most of the villagers had known since the last Mogul invasion. By word of mouth the news got around fast. Even Women Went "Rock Hunting" "The crazy foreigner is paying good money for rocks. He has been touched by the gods, no doubt, or perhaps driven mad by the sun, but his pockets are full of rupees. If we hurry, we may get some before he regains his wits or the money runs out." Within a few months, thousands of Indian peasants became beryl hunters. The graceful Rajput women, with their flowing red-and yellow skirts and silver anklets, searched the stream beds and gravel banks. Their naked brown children squatted all day long on the piles of debris at the mouths of old mica mines, picking through the broken stones for the particular kind of greenish-gray pebbles which seemed to please the strange American most. By suppertime a lucky youngster might hope to fill his shallow reed basket with per haps ten pounds of rock, which would sell for eight annas, only 15 cents in American money, but an almost fantastic wage for an Indian boy. Eventually beryl collecting became organ ized on a less romantic but more efficient basis, under the leadership of an elderly but dynamic little Arab, Abrahim Futehally, of Bombay. He trained a staff of bright young Indians to travel through the villages, teaching the peas ants how to recognize good-quality ore and where to look with the best chances of success. With the help of the Geological Survey of India, he undertook systematic prospecting * See "India-Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," by Lord Halifax, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, October, 1943; "British Commonwealth of Na tions," by Eric Underwood, April, 1943; and "In the Realms of the Maharajas," by Lawrence Copley Thaw and Margaret S. Thaw, December, 1940. t See "Metal Sinews of Strength," by Frederick G. Vosburgh, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for April, 1942.