history of metallurgy

Both the advancements in metalworking and their advancers tend not to get as much press as other scientific or technological discoveries. This could be because their immediacy doesn't always transcend to personal areas such as health or medicine, but nevertheless these pioneers have brought profound ease and comfort into our daily lives. For this entry in the Austen Knapman blog, we're going to pay homage to the brilliant thinkers and tinkers behind the top 5 historic breakthroughs in metallurgy, letting you know why they should matter as much as they do.

#5 The Extraction of Iron Ore

Extractive metallurgy lies at the heart of metallurgical engineering, mineral processing and numerous other processes, and seeing how the practice has progressed through human history serves as a useful tool for archaeologists. Nowhere is it more poignant than with the use of Iron Smelting - the extraction of usable metal from oxidized iron ores - in early human history. Literally the act that took us from the Bronze to the Iron age, it's exact first usage is not really known, with a lack of pre-12th century iron artefacts leading us tentatively to the Near East, Ancient Egypt and West Africa. Given the need for specially designed furnaces and hot-working techniques though, we praise any civilization who could simply master the art.

#4 Sand Casting

With its earliest known usage traced to 645 B.C. China, sand casting (or moulding) processes are still used to produce over 70% of metal castings today. A process that grounds, sweeps or strickles sand into the desired shape for molten metal to fill the inside and ultimately cool into the cast pattern, this relatively cheap yet sufficiently refractory method has gone from crucibles used by foundry-men to industrial factory robots, with the core method remaining as reliable and economical as ever.

#3 The Isolation of Elemental Aluminium & the Hall-Heroult Process

Being that they are so necessary to one another, we've thrown these two breakthroughs together. In 1827, the German chemist Friedrich Wohler was the first scientist to isolate aluminium by mixing anhydrous aluminium chloride with potassium (a process that would later be done with sodium). Though at the time it was exceedingly expensive to produce, being considered more valuable than gold, in 1886 by Frenchman Paul Heroult developed a method for smelting aluminium on an industrial scale. Now the most widely used non-ferrous metal, both these discoveries had an unfathomable part to play in the industry and the construction of modern society.

#2 The Bessemer Process

The first trick for mass-producing steel on an inexpensive scale, this manufacturing method is named after the English engineer, inventor and businessman Henry Bessemer, who patented it in 1856. A process that removes impurities from molten pig iron by oxidation (raising its temperature and keeping it molten), similar methods had been known to be used in Chinese iron, and possibly in Japan, but never to this scale. Though the Linz-Donawitz process (which offered better control of the final chemistry), made it obsolete by 1968, it paved the way for future metallurgy processes, and helped advance society by some magnitude.

#1 Carburised Steel

A major player in the high-strength metal that helps build our world today, the carburization of steel involves a heat treatment of the metallic surface using a source of carbon - increasing the surface hardness of low carbon steel. Originally discovered by Indian pioneers in metallurgy, their legendary Damascus, or 'Wootz' steel would only be matched by the efforts of European manufacturers 2000 years later. It's unique banding patterns (due to the intermixed ferrite and cementite alloys in the steelI) helped formed the basis for modern steel production by inspiring countless other pioneers across the continents.

Don't forget, if you find the subject of metalworking and its story deeply interesting, we produced our own HISTORY OF STEEL INFOGRAPHIC to learn how this amazing metal has been manipulated and enhacned by human hands.

For all future blogs and news relating to the history and use of metal, keep an eye on the Austen Knapman Facebook page, Twitter and Google+.

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