The History of Steel

Steel is an alloy of iron, carbon and other elements, it delivers a high tensile strength at reasonably low costs, making it a major component in infrastructure, buildings, ships, cars, machinery, weapons and tools.  Without steel, many of the famous buildings, bridges and other structures we have today would never have been created.  The strength offered using steel has led to developments in architecture, building technology, industrial machinery, automobiles, shipbuilding and other technologies so the modern world relies heavily on the use of steel. 

The earliest known production of steel was discovered when pieces of ironware were excavated from an archaeological site in Anatolia dating from as long ago as 1800 BC.  The earliest production of high carbon steel was in the Indian Subcontinent where it was being produced by 600 BC and exported to all corners of the world.  This was known as Wootz Steel or Seric Iron, was considered the finest steel in the world with its high carbon content and was transported as cakes of steely iron.

Wootz Steel was produced by heating black magnetite ore with carbon (from bamboo and leaves) in a sealed clay crucible inside a charcoal furnace. An alternative production method was to smelt the ore first to produce wrought iron, then heat it and hammer it to remove slag.  When Wootz Steel was introduced to Syria, a whole industry developed making weapons out of this steel, now known as Damascus steel.  Damascus steel was primarily used to manufacture sword blades which were characterised by the distinctive banding and mottling patterns.

Damascus steel swords and blades were prized for their resistance to shattering, their toughness and the fact that they were capable of being honed to a sharp and resilient edge, making them the swords of choice for centuries.  The original method of producing Damascus Steel has been lost since production ceased in the mid-18th Century and there are several modern theories to explain the decline in production, including the breakdown of trade routes to supply the necessary metals, the lack of necessary trace impurities in the metals, and a possible loss of knowledge of the crafting techniques combined with secrecy and suppression of the industry by the British Raj in India.

Damascus steel was so treasured that a whole subfield of experimental archaeology has emerged as scholars and innovators attempt to reverse-engineer or rediscover the process by which Damascus steel was made.  The well-known technique of pattern welding produces surface patterns like those found on Damascus blades which led some blacksmiths to believe that the same technique was used in ancient times.  Pattern welded steel is also known as “Modern Damascus” and is made from several types of steel and iron slices welded together to form a billet which can then be used to roll into bars, rods and wire.

Since the C17th the first step in European steel production has been smelting iron ore into pig iron in a blast furnace, using charcoal or coke.  Pig iron was then refined in a finery forge to produce bar iron to be used for steel making.

Steelmaking during the modern era began with the introduction of the Bessemer process in 1855 which enables the production of large quantities of steel in a cost-efficient manner.  This led to mild steel being used where wrought iron would have formerly been used.  Another C19th steel making process was the Siemens-Martin process in which bar iron (or steel scrap) is co-melted with pig iron.

When the Linz-Donawitz process of basic oxygen steelmaking was developed in the 1950s, it was superior to other methods because the oxygen used in the furnace limited the impurities (primarily nitrogen) that entered the steel from the air used.

Today, the most common method of producing steel uses electric arc furnaces (EAF) to reprocess scrap metal and create new steel.  These furnaces can also convert pig iron to steel which uses more energy, resulting in a more expensive process.  Steel is one of the most recycled materials in the world with a recycling rate of more than 60% globally.

China is the world’s top steel producer today, producing a massive third of global supplies, followed by Japan, Russia and America.  In 2008 steel was first traded on the London Metal Exchange as a commodity and the world steel industry peaked in 2007 when ThyssenKrupp built the two most modern steel mills on the planet.  Since the economic crash of 2008, a slump in construction has led to a decrease in demand for steel and prices have fallen accordingly.  However, as the global economy recovers, steel will still be here, a stalwart that will help us forge a bright new future. Jamestown Manufacturing stock a large quantity of various grades of structural steel and only use the highest quality steel from European suppliers to produce high quality certified steel products such as profiles and plate girders.

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Jamestown Manufacturing Ltd.
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Phone: + 353 45 434 288
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