Few things have impacted the development of our world as much as steel. It changed the way we build, the way we fight wars, and even the way we travel.
The history of steel is populated with interesting and ambitious individuals and tons of fascinating yet little-known facts. From the discovery of steel to the most current technologies and uses, the world would not be the same without this revolutionary material.
Let’s take a look back through time for a brief glimpse into its fascinating history.
The History of Steel: How Metal Shaped the Modern World
The invention of steel changed the way we build our world. Here is a history of steel and how it shaped the modern world.
The Origin of Steel
You would have to go back billions of years to really discuss the origin of steel. In fact, you’d have to jump into the Way Back Machine and travel to a time long before humans walked the Earth.
Eventually, primitive man discovered meteorites made of nickel and iron and learned to smelt these elements into steel. Early man experimented and improved upon their techniques.
Prior to the Iron Age, bronze was the primary metal used to make tools and weapons. But as steel proved to be stronger and harder than bronze, it soon became the metal of choice.
Early Iron and Steel
The Iron Age started around 4,000 years ago. It led to the invention of steel by blacksmiths who discovered that iron became stronger, harder and more durable with the addition of carbon in the coal furnaces.
By the 6th century BC, Wootz steel was being used by craftsmen in southern India. This is a material created by smelting wrought iron with charcoal. It is admired for its tough, sharp qualities, and is known for the swirling pattern produced by bands of clustered Fe3C particles during the smelting process.
3rd Century to 18th Century BC
China typically receives the greatest among of credit for being the first region to mass produce high-quality steel. Steel from China can be traced all the way back to the 2nd century BC, with evidence of mass production of steel products beginning to take off around the 3rd century AD.
Damascus steel originated during the 11th century, a material primarily used for sword blades from ingots of wootz steel. These blades were popular for their ability to resist shattering and to hold a razor sharp edge.
The 18th century AD saw many breakthroughs in the production of steel. It was becoming an increasingly popular material for tools, weapons, and particularly as a building material. Yet it was very expensive and thus was typically utilized in limited quantities and only by those who could afford it.
The early 1700s saw coke used to replace charcoal and wood in smelting iron on a mass scale based on scarcity of those resources. This was also the period of history when Thomas Newcomen launched the Industrial Revolution by building the first commercially successful steam engine.
This was an important time for the steel industry, as Henry colt invented the steel roller, and Phillip Vaughn patented the ballbearing for axles. Steel also increased in popularity in American farming due to make durable tools and for working the land.
The Bessemer process was introduced in 1855. This process enabled the removal of impurities from iron, thus resulting in stronger steel. And only a few years later, Sir Carl Wilhelm Siemens developed the Siemens regenerative furnace. This allowed excess carbon and other impurities to be burnt out of pig iron during the production of steel.
In the years following the American Civil War, steel production escalated at a rapid speed, due in no small part by the efforts of Andrew Carnegie, a highly ambitious Scottish-American industrialist.
Carnegie took advantage of the Bessemer process, bringing it to America in order to produce phosphorous-free iron for better steel. He established a steel mill to manufacture alloy, and in 1889 all of his holdings were finally consolidated under the banner of The Carnegie Steel Company.
This period in American history saw the first skyscraper and the first steel suspension bridge.
No period in world history saw as many advancements as the United States in the 1900s. Many of them made possible by advances and refinements in the steel production industry.
1912 witnessed the invention of stainless steel, a development that revolutionized an already versatile material used in every facet of consumer goods, infrastructure, transportation, and weapons in the modern world.
Steel production slowed down when the economy stumbled following the stock market crash of 1929. Many American steelworkers were laid off, yet the railroads continued to expand across the country and steel cans remained popular, so the steel mills remained open to meet those needs.
The Modern Age of Steel
The world has become a very different place in the last half-century, and yet the need for steel remains high. One of the most significant changes in the industry has become the practice of melting down scrap steel for reuse rather than mills making steel from scratch.
Most steel is now produced in mini-mills. These mills use an electric arc furnace that uses carbon electrodes that create an electric charge to melt the metal down. They have also served as a critical step in recycling old steel, yet much remains to be done before the industry can achieve sustainable smelting techniques.
A World Made of Steel
It’s hard to imagine a world without steel. It is the material that makes much of contemporary life possible. Looking back at the history of steel, it’s hard to not be amazed at the innovations that have been made over time that we still enjoy thousands of years later.
So the next time you get in your car, ride an elevator and enjoy a cup of coffee in your steel travel mug, remember that it’s all a part of history, and consider how different life would be without this remarkable material.
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