History of Steel

The importance of steel to the human experience cannot be overstated. Steel has played a significant role in our history, progression, and survival. But how did humans figure out how to use this material in the first place? This quick history of steel will highlight some of the most important moments in steel history to help you have a better understanding. What is steel and the different uses of steel? Read on to learn more.

An Accidental Discovery

Although no one knows for sure, the discovery of steel was most likely entirely by accident. Ancient humans, at some point, discovered the glistening material buried around them. Perhaps in ancient times, steel was more abundant above ground than it is today, or perhaps it was discovered while digging in the earth for other purposes. Either way, once humans laid eyes on the sparkling resource, their obsession and innovations never ceased. 

Early Metal Working

As early as 400 BC, Indian metal workers were using smelting methods to bind carbon to iron. When the materials or iron bars and bits of charcoal were put into a clay receptacle called a crucible, the workers would add blasts of air from a bellows. When the iron melted, it would absorb the carbon in the charcoal. After cooling, the crucible would be filled with pure steel.

In other parts of the world, such as Germany, other metalworking inventions were being created, such as the German contraption that was discovered along the Rhine Valley. It stood 10 feet high and had two bellows at the bottom. This particular invention could process large amounts of iron ore and charcoal at once. This type of smelting produced cast iron which was used in molds.

Steel and War

As with most resources, one of the first things that humans wanted to do with steel was to figure out different uses of steel. High on that priority list was figuring out how to use it for battle. Steel was crucial in the invention of cannons and firearms in the 13th and 14th centuries. Molds of cannons and gun barrels were mass-produced at this time and weapons could be pumped out at a rate like never before.

Negative consequences of this steel boom were bound to happen, and the most significant consequence by far was the impact on European forests. One English steel furnace required 240 acres of trees per year to create the charcoal needed for smelting.

New Discoveries

As with many discoveries, steel innovations were often a product of accidents. Such as the apparently devastating mistake of a British metal worker named Bessemer. As Bessemer attempted to produce steel in larger quantities, he decided one day in 1856 to pour pig iron into a container. This was far different from the regular practice of letting it ooze into a trench. Once the pig iron was inside, it was blasted with air through perforations along the bottom. This resulted in what appeared to be a disaster. Sparks flew, flames leaped, and pig iron came flying out of the container. However, when everything calmed down, what was discovered inside was carbon-free pure iron. This was the beginning of the production of high-quality impurity-free steel.