Steel is one of the strongest and most versatile metals available. It’s been used for thousands of years to make tools and weapons, but production methods were often very limited in their scope. Although the origins of steel have been debated for centuries, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that steel became a common material. This invention came about as a result of research into how best to create stronger and more useful iron alloys. Let’s take a look at some of the key moments in its history…
4th Century BCE: Earliest Known Usage of Steel
The earliest known examples of steel are samples of Damascus steel, which were produced in the Near East as early as the 4th century BCE. These were made by forging together iron and carbon-rich materials such as charcoal. The carbon in the materials would react with the iron to create steel. Damascus steel was famous in the Middle Ages for its very fine and intricate patterns and was used to make swords and other weapons. However, it was difficult to replicate, and the methods used to create it are not known. Damascus steel was the only form of steel used for thousands of years, until the late 18th century.
18th Century: Iron-carbon alloy becomes known as steel
In the late 18th century, the term “steel” was first used to describe an iron-carbon alloy. Previously, it had been called “mild iron”, “incorruptible iron”, or “wrought iron”, depending on its form. The term “steel” was derived from the fact that the iron in these alloys was brittle enough to be cut with a “blade” (another name for a “sword”). Carbon is the most important alloying element in steel because it has a greater effect on the properties of iron than any other element. Steel is stronger and harder than pure iron, and it has a lower melting point.
19th Century: Bessemer process is invented
In the mid-19th century, the Bessemer process was developed for the industrial-scale production of steel. This used high temperatures to remove impurities from pig iron (or other low-quality iron alloys), creating a new and stronger iron-based alloy. However, the process involved removing the carbon from the iron, and without this, the iron could only be described as “soft iron”, not “steel”. So the Bessemer process became the first industrial process for steel production, but it was not the first time steel had been created. The process allowed a much wider range of iron alloys to be used in the production of steel. It was an important step in the development of modern steel, and it became the basis of many steel-making processes that are used today.
20th Century: Stainless steel is discovered and developed
In the early 20th century, a new type of steel was discovered by accident. In 1912, a French engineer was trying to make an alloy of iron and chromium for use in razor blades. He discovered that the resulting alloy was rust-resistant, and a new type of steel was created – stainless steel. Other alloys with rust-resistant properties were also developed in the early 20th century, such as Inconel, which is nickel-based. Both these sheets of steel remain widely used in the 21st century, particularly in the marine and chemical industries. Stainless steel was originally used for kitchen cutlery, but it is now widely used in other applications as well, such as in the construction of buildings.
21st Century: High-strength steels are discovered and NGV becomes possible
High-strength low-alloy steels (HSLA steels), or “super steels”, are a fairly recent invention. In the 1950s, it was discovered that by adding a small amount of tungsten to steel, its strength and hardness could be greatly increased. These steels are widely used in the construction of cranes, bridges, and other heavy engineering equipment, and they are also used in the construction of modern vehicles, particularly for their exhaust systems. Further development of these materials led to the creation of lightweight, extremely strong materials called nano-composites. These are being used in the construction of lighter aircraft, vehicles, and satellites, and they are expected to play an important role in the development of electric vehicles, by helping to make lighter and cheaper batteries possible.
The invention of steel is one of the most significant events in the history of materials science. It wasn’t just a case of taking iron, which had been available for thousands of years, and making it “better”. Instead, steel was a completely new material and it has had a massive impact on the development of modern society. It is a particularly interesting example of a technological invention because it didn’t happen all at once. Instead, it was the result of knowledge and experimentation, which built up over thousands of years. It was only when the different areas of knowledge were brought together and the necessary equipment was developed that steel was finally created in a usable form. It’s also interesting to note that it wasn’t ever really necessary to create steel in the first place. After all, iron is a perfectly good metal all by itself.