Ancient Steel Manufacturing

Steel is made by mixing iron ore with carbon. Several ancient groups discovered this combination and used it to forge new technology for their cultures. Some of these groups included China, East Africa, and even Sparta. Though many of their methods have been lost, others have survived into the modern manufacturing process.

Today steel is one of the most commonly used materials in buildings and machinery, but it used to be a rare commodity. Sometimes meteorites were even used to make it. In fact, historians suspect that this is where the first steel may have come from. It took a while for cultures to figure out how to make steel on the scale that we do today. Though the first step of mixing iron with carbon is simple, the resulting “pig iron” is not steel. The amount of carbon in the metal has to be reduced.

Perhaps the most famous ancient steel is referred to as “Damascus,” or “Wootz,” steel. This particular steel originated in India and was traded into the Middle East. Buyers transformed the metal into weapons that were then used in the Crusades. The process for making this type of steel is still not fully understood, though smiths have attempted to replicate the unique look of the striped metal. The process and exact composition was lost long ago. Wootz steel’s striking appearance features organic, swirling bands of dark and light metal. These stripes may be the result of plant fibers being used in the process. Researchers found that nanowires of carbon run through the metal, strengthening the material while allowing it to remain flexible.

People have always needed metals that are both hard and pliable. Warriors especially looked for these qualities in blades and weapons. In Japan, samurai used blades made of Tamahagane, a type of steel. Tamahagane was made by mixing iron sand and charcoal together before heating them in a furnace for a couple of days.

In the eighteen hundreds, Sir Henry Bessemer rediscovered the crucial element to steel making that many cultures before him had understood and then over the years, forgotten. To make steel, Bessemer forced air through molten iron and carbon. Since Bessemer’s process was discovered just a few years after the Industrial Revolution, the world was primed to produce steel in large quantities.  Bessemer began his own steel company in preparation.

Eventually the process got refined one more time to allow greater control over the materials. While steel production has enjoyed pockets of popularity throughout history, our global, technologically advanced society has now made steel production faster, cheaper, and easier than ever before. We no longer have to melt meteorites or trade for steel as if it were a precious metal. Steel has become a familiar part of our culture.

The History Of Stainless Steel