A brief history of metal and steel

People first started making things from metal 9,000 years ago, and steel has been around for about 3,000 yeats. It is a versatile metal that is still being used today for many applications.

Before metalworking, tools were made of stone, wood or animal bones. This is why the period is known as the Stone Age.

The Bronze Age

No one is quite sure what type of metal was first used. It was probably the copper that can be found on the ground in lumps. Tools made from copper had a major drawback though, as copper is not a very hard metal and easily bends.

The next development in metalwork was when people learned how to make bronze, an alloy much harder than copper that was used to construct knives and weapons. This was about 3300 BC and is usually called the Bronze Age.

The Iron Age

The next major stage in metalwork was due to the need for better weapons and tools. Around 1200 BC, iron was used that was even stronger than bronze and this gave iron weapons an advantage in war. Iron is in plentiful supply as it is the most common element found on Earth, as it mainly forms the Earth’s inner and outer core.

History of steel

About 3,000 years ago, someone discovered that by adding carbon to iron, steel could be made. Steel is an alloy that has several beneficial qualities, and is strong and easily shaped to construct items. Modern steel contains between 0.02% and 1.7% carbon. There are some modern steels that do not contain carbon but have alternative alloying materials.

Steel artifacts made 2,500 years ago have been found in India and Sri Lanka. For a long period, steel was expensive as it could only be made in small quantities. In the Middle Ages, steel swords and knives were luxury weapons owned only by people who could afford them.

In 1610, new steel manufacturing processes were developed. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, steel could be made cheaply and in quantity. It can be argued that the Industrial Revolution would not have happened without a plentiful supply of steel to make the tools and machinery, that drove the factories.

Today, the most common way of making steel is known as the basic-oxygen process. A turnip-shaped converter takes hot liquid “pig iron” mixed with scrap metal and blows oxygen into it. Carbon or other alloyed materials are then added; this is done at high temperatures, and the liquid steel is poured into moulds to form sheets, slabs or beams.

Steel is a relatively cheap metal and is used in building and bridge construction. Lengths of thin steel are welded together to form tubular steel used to construct equipment.

Tubular steel is lightweight but strong and can be easily bent into shape. It is the ideal material for material handling and storing equipment such as trolleys, tables, and garment rails that can carry heavy loads and last a long time.

There’s little doubt that today’s world would not be as developed without the invention of steel 3,000 years ago.

Posted by Mark
5th June 2018

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