Stainless steel is one of the most important materials in history. Used for structures, tools, decorations, monuments, weapons, food processing, surgical tools, and countless other applications, this metal has become a vital resource for nations all across the country.
The modern world, quite frankly, would be inconceivable without stainless steel. But where did it come from? How did we arrive at stainless steel, and how did this unique combination of materials rise to such massive prominence?
Stainless steel may seem like a relative newcomer. It was invented in the early 20th century, while bronze, as an example, was first made by combining tin and copper roughly 5,300 years ago.
Whether you work in the steel industry, use stainless steel tools and equipment for your career, or simply have a cutlery set in your kitchen, you’ll find the history of stainless steel endlessly fascinating.
Part 1: Early History: Bronze to Iron to Steel
Beginnings in Iron
The first important metal used by human civilization was bronze. Made from roughly 90% copper, this metal has been dated back nearly 7,000 years ago. This metal was used by Chinese and Middle Eastern civilizations for tools, weapons, jewelry, and armor, and eventually spread across the known world.
With bronze, mankind understood the importance of metal, but we were learning that different metals have different characteristics and uses. This knowledge would pave the way for iron to replace bronze as the primary metal.
Iron is the basic metal in steel (and therefore also stainless steel), so to understand the history of stainless steel, you have to start with iron.
The very first use of iron is unknown. However, early artifacts of iron have been found in Egyptian tombs dating as far back as 5,200 B.C. There is even evidence that iron was being used in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) as early as 7,000 B.C.
The first iron did not come from mines, but actually came from meteorites. Some meteorites are 90% iron, and ancient man was able to harvest these easily-accessible, if rare, rocks. Because it was so rare, iron was extremely valuable in early civilizations. In most cases, the metal was only used by the extremely wealthy and powerful.
The “iron age,” which came and went to different cultures at different times, lasted (roughly speaking) from 1200 BC to 550 BC.
But iron was not replaced, but changed.
It was discovered that by adding a small amount of carbon, the metal becomes stronger and more flexible. This new alloy eventually became the material we call steel.
Steel Rises to Prominence
Steel can be traced as far back as 4,000 years, to the early centuries of the iron age. The precise “invention” of steel cannot be pinpointed, but steel was certainly around throughout much of the iron age.
While they did not invent it, Chinese civilization is often credited as the first mass producer of steel. Around the 3rd century, the Chinese were using advanced techniques that would not come to prominence in the West until the 19th century, roughly 1600 years later.
Middle Eastern cultures advanced steel production around the 11th century; Damascus steel became the benchmark for top-quality blades. In the 12th century, Sri Lanka, a small island nation off the coast of India, was a major supplier of steel. Numerous cultures, through trade, conquest, or travel, spread steel products from one end of the known world to the other.
By the 18th century, steel was used for weapons, tools, and armor all across the globe. But it was still expensive and rare, so it was limited to small quantities. It stayed this way until coke, an advanced form of coal, was used to enhance the manufacturing process. Now iron could be made into steel in mass, significantly increasing the use of this essential metal. Coke, it could be argued, paved the way for our modern world.
Steam trains, farm equipment, and even some structures started using steel as a primary material. The steel roller, invented by Englishman Henry Cort, further enhances the efficiency of steel production, making it even more affordable. Countless developments made steel more attainable, while ingenious inventors find new uses for this ancient alloy.
One of the most important advances was farming. Agriculture in America and elsewhere increased production, largely thanks to steel machinery and tools that allowed farmers to clear more space, plow more acres, and grow more crops.
Steel remained relatively expensive; availability remained limited. It stayed this way until Englishman Henry Bessemer revolutionized the production process, allowing steel to become the most important material in the world.
Bessemer and Modern Steel Making
In the 1850s, Bessemer created an industrial system that made it easier for manufacturers to remove impurities from iron on a large scale. The system allowed for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron. Basically air is blasted across the molten iron to remove impurities, resulting in faster production of steel.
The result was more high-quality steel, made faster, and with less labor. Suddenly steel was cheaper while the quality was just as good if not better.
Before Bessemer, steel was a luxury item. After Bessemer, steel is a mass-production raw material. The stage was set for a new innovation: stainless steel.
Part 2: The Rise of Stainless Steel
From primitive iron made from meteorites to advanced steel manufactured through a simple yet advanced industrial process, steel has made a long journey in roughly 5,000 years. But it was still prone to rust and corrosion. It was strong, flexible, and affordable, but rust could wear the material quickly.
Fortunately, another English inventor stepped onto the world stage…
Enter Harry Brearley and his “Rustless” Steel
Harry Brearley was born in Sheffield, an English city that was one of the most important areas for steel production. By the age of 12, Brearley was working in the local steelworks, where his father was employed. He held roles as a bottle washer in the company’s chemistry lab, and eventually became an expert in metallurgy. By 1908, two major steel companies joined forces to create a research laboratory, hiring Brearley to lead the project.
In 1913, Britain, France, Germany, and numerous other countries were in a virtual arms race, preparing for a war they hoped would never come. Before the “Great War,” Brearley was working to solve the problem of excessive wear inside rifle barrels. As a bullet flies through a barrel, it creates friction and heat that can damage the internal spirals (known as rifling) and reduce the weapon’s effectiveness and accuracy. Chromium was known to have heat-resistant properties; Brearley hoped this metal could make barrels more resistant to the wear and tear of firing.
What he discovered, however, was an alloy that was not just resistant to heat, but extremely resistant to corrosion.
Steel and chromium had been experimented with before. Micheal Faraday, whose experiments with electricity and magnetism made him one of the most important scientists of all time, tinkered with a steel-chromium mixture for cutlery in the early 1820s. The experiments showed some promise but were eventually halted when his employer, the cutlery manufacturer, died. The most notable was the discovery that certain steel-chromium alloys were resistant to various acids.
There were even patents for steel-chromium alloys before Brearley’s experiments. In the 1870s a patent was filed for a material that was roughly 30% chromium, but the inventors didn’t seem to appreciate the vast potential for such a mixture. The patent was never finalized.
More experiments were needed. One of the biggest problems was that a small amount of carbon was required to make a reliable steel alloy with a large percentage of chromium.
Eventually, Brearley discovered the perfect mixture for corrosion-resistant steel. Like many discoveries, stainless steel may have been stumbled upon rather than intentionally invented. Legend has it that Brearley noticed some of the scraps from his metal experiments resisted corrosion; another story says that he etched the different metals and found that one was resistant to acid.
His first stainless steel alloy, which was made in August of 1913, was made of 0.24% carbon and 12.8% chromium.
Brearley was not the first to experiment with steel and chromium, he wasn’t even the first to use it for tools or parts. In fact, chromium-mixed steels were already being used in some engine valves for the flight industry. But Brearley was the first to see the massive potential for this durable metal.
Unfortunately for Brearley, few other people could see the potential as well. (In hindsight, this may have been beneficial.) He left his employer and went to work for a cutlery company, where he helped develop a variety of household products, calling the metal “rustless steel.” But a friend at the cutlery shop suggested “stainless steel,” which is a little more memorable. The “stainless” name stuck and it’s been called that ever since.
Brearley attempted to patent the metal in the United States but discovered that another maker, the automotive inventor Elwood Haynes, had been experimenting with a similar alloy for spark plugs. Brearley and Haynes decided to pool their resources and work together.
Other inventors can claim to have combined chromium and steel long before Brearley. (Faraday, for example.) But no one saw the significant potential of this metal quite like the English inventor. This, perhaps more than the metallurgy and science itself, made him the father of stainless steel.
The applications of stainless steel were immediately apparent to Brearley, and soon became obvious to others. It could be used for kitchen cutlery, utensils, surgical tools, and items like screwdrivers and hammers. Sinks, food storage, automotive components…the potential uses seem endless.
The post-war 1920s saw an increase in the overall use of stainless steel, not only in the amount that was being used, but in the variety of applications. The material was now being used for tanks to store harsh chemicals, as a building material for food processing equipment, and was important to the aviation industry, among numerous other uses.
The size of items made from stainless steel kept growing. From handheld knives, the material grew to find use in cars, ships, and infrastructure.
Stainless steel eventually was used as a decorative material in architecture. Most famously, the Chrysler Building in New York was decorated with glossy stainless steel, making it one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.
The majority of common stainless steel types that are used today were invented during the period between the World Wars. Different grades became standardized, and the emphasis moved to finding cheaper, more affordable methods for mass production of the existing grades. There was less emphasis on creating new grades, and more emphasis on developing methods to make existing grades more affordable.
But after the Second World War, there was a renewed interest in creating more grades of stainless steel to fit different properties. Jet aircraft, for example, needed better weight-to-strength ratio, so hardened grades were developed.
The Gateway Arch, which graces the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, is one of the best examples of stainless steel in architecture. Completed in the 1960s, this iconic landmark has withstood decades of wind, rain, ice, and snow. An inspection in 2015 found that there were no structural issues; only cleaning was required.
During the 1970s, “duplex” stainless steel was developed. This metal has a two-phase micro-structure and is twice as strong as regular austenitic or ferritic stainless steel. It’s largely considered the best stainless steel for resisting corrosion, and it’s used in chemical storage, high-heat applications, and desalination plants, among many other uses.
Stainless steel has revolutionized entire industries, ranging from the automotive sector to food production to aeronautics.
Rooted in iron used only by civilization’s wealthy and powerful, stainless steel has become an essential material for every industry and every nation, a metal that is now found in any home in the modern world.
Build Your Future with Service Steel
The past is interesting, the future is exciting. But if you need high-quality stainless steel right now, call Service Steel.
With locations throughout the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region, including Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Moline, Illinois, we can serve all of your needs and provide the high-quality steel, aluminum, and alloy products you require, all backed by the service you deserve!