While steel is generally considered to be a symbol of modern times, these remarkable modern composites that are available to us today are the result of over 6,000 years of progress and development.
A Gift from the Gods (Pre-Historic Iron)
Though iron—the primary metal in steel composite—is usually associated with the later ages of mankind, archaeologists have found that metallurgists have been working with iron as early as 4000 B.C.—hundreds of years before the start of the Bronze Age—using iron from meteorites to make weapons, ornaments and tools. This iron was known as the “Gift from the Gods”, and even into the Iron Age, meteorite iron was prized.
Iron Throughout the Bronze Ages
Even though iron had been used in crafting, the forges of the Bronze Age were unable to reach the extreme temperatures needed to actually melt iron. The Egyptians began “Smelting” iron around 1400 B.C., which quickly led to the end of the Bronze Age throughout Western civilization.
In Eastern civilization, however, evidence indicates that some metallurgists were far ahead of the curve. We have reason that they had discovered steel centuries before the Iron Age even began: The oldest written reference to steel is found in an ancient Chinese manuscript dating around 2000 B.C., where a Chinese Warlord refers to a compass pointing south, which could only be possible with “heat treated” steel. Iron by itself would not have the needed magnetic properties. It’s likely that this steel was not intentionally made in a forge, as steel was not widely produced in China until around 600 C.E.
The Iron Age
The “Iron Age” began around 1500 B.C. Contrary to what the name might suggest, the “Iron age” of a civilization is indicated not by iron—cast iron was commonly used throughout the Bronze Age. Pre-iron-age iron was filled with high levels of impurity, making it far more difficult to work with than iron. Additionally, pure iron is actually softer than bronze, making it impractical for use in high-wear applications such as tools, weapons, and armor. Instead, an “Iron Age” begins when a civilization designs forges capable of melting iron (which, due to its high melting point, was not possible in bronze-age furnaces) and added coal (carbon) to make a primitive steel alloy.
Damascus: The Original Wear-Resistant Steel
The most famous and highly prized steel of ancient times was known as Damascus Steel, produced in ancient Syria around 400 B.C. for high quality swords. Alexander the Great was said to use a sword made with Damascus steel to defeat the Persian and Greek armies around 325 B.C.
The quality of Damascus steel carried far beyond the Iron Age, through to the 11th & 12th centuries when Christian Crusaders marveled at the ability of the Muslim swords to retain their cutting edge without chipping or cracking compared to the crusaders’ swords, which were more cumbersome, brittle, and unable to keep an edge.
A Legacy of Greatness
Today metallurgists all over the world continue to work hard to apply some of the ideas of ancient Damascus to modern day metallurgy to make steels that are tougher, and stronger, and more durable. Metallurgists have also designed steel with special properties, such as Manganese, which is non-magnetic, and ENDURA, which is remarkably wear-resistant steel.
If you’d like to learn more about the cutting edge of modern steel technology, we invite you to take a look at our wear-resistant and impact steel.