The role of steel in modern society is a far cry from steel’s traditional uses, but throughout the ages steel has consistently played a major role in both the economy and the physical development of many regions.
Producing knives as early as the 14th Century and cutlery by the early 17th Century, Sheffield was a small but active market town. One hundred years later, thanks to crucible steel and Sheffield’s development of silver plating, known as Sheffield Plate, the town flourished.
Benjamin Huntsman created England’s crucible steel in the Sheffield region using a coke-fired furnace to heat iron in clay crucibles before skimming off impurities and pouring molten steel into ingots. The introduction of Huntsman’s technique helped Sheffield develop into a leading industrial city.
Sheffield Plating was invented by Thomas Boulsover around the same period. He fused silver with copper and discovered the composite block when rolled or hammered reduced the thickness of both metals at similar rates. Silver plating reduced the cost of creating decorative items. Later a ‘double sandwich’ Sheffield plate was developed for items with a visible interior. Bowls, mugs and serving trays displayed the beauty of silver at a fraction of the cost.
Sheffield led the way again at the beginning of the 20th Century with Harry Brearley’s discovery that led to stainless steel. Brearley had been trying to develop a corrosion-resistant alloy to use in gun barrels. He joined forces with America’s Elwood Haynes to form the American Stainless Steel Corporation.
Despite the best efforts of modern researchers to replicate it, the creation of authentic Damascus Steel remains a mystery. Used in Middle Eastern swordmaking from wootz steel developed in India as early as 300 BC, Damascus Steel featured distinctive patterns that mimicked flowing water. Daggers, swords and other weapons were tough and resisted shattering. When sharpened, they held their edge.
Modern sword makers make their own form of Damascus Steel by layering multiple pieces of steel, each with different metallurgical composition before forging and welding them. Repeatedly hammering and folding the sandwiched steel along the length of the sword or blade creates unique patterns reminiscent of authentic
Damascus Steel that are popular with collectors.
FUTURE OF STEEL
Steel consumption during the 20th Century increased at an average annual rate of 3.3%. There has been a global shift in both production and consumption leaders. The USA for instance produced 37% of the world’s steel in 1900, but a century later was responsible for producing less than 15% of the world’s steel. Growth in steel production in countries like China, Brazil, India and South Korea contribute to and reflect growth in their economies.
Small communities in many countries are growing the same way Sheffield grew due to its steel industry. Innovations continue and economies are strengthening. Whether or not newcomers to the steel industry manage to unlock the secret of creating steel with the inherent strength and beauty of Damascus Steel remains to be seen, but the future of steel is sound.