Steel and history

Iron, copper and their alloys, have been used for thousands of years by man to model objects, jewels, weapons and, in recent times, bearing and architectural structures.

My engineering education could perhaps explain what is about to follow. Iron, copper and their alloys, for example: brass, bronze, gold and, earlier still, wood and stone have been used for thousands of years by man to model objects, jewels, tools, weapons and, in recent times, bearing and architectural structures.
However, unlike copper and gold, iron intended as a pure metal element cannot be found in nature. There are various ferrous minerals which, combined with carbon at high temperature as the result of a series of heating and mechanical percussion actions, form an iron and carbon alloy called steel.
Today ‘base’ steel (commonly known as ‘iron’, has a low percentage of carbon (less than 0.2% of mass), and is produced in large quantities using pig iron (rich in carbon), which is refined (with the carbon content being reduced) in “Converter” furnaces. Pig iron is obtained from blast furnaces’, which, as the name suggests are enormous structures and often more than 30 meters tall. There are only 5 in Italy, and all in Taranto, for a total production capacity of 10 million tons of pig iron every year. While the first blast oven dates back to 1340 (Lieges), mass steel production only began with the first industrial revolution (when steam machines were used), but the real production revolution came with advent of the Converters (the first was perfected by H. Bessemaer in 1855) during the last century.
Steels with higher percentages of carbon and additional metal elements in their alloys such as Manganese, Silicon, Vanadium, Molybdenum, Wolfram (Tungsten), Nickel, Chrome, Cobalt, Titanium, are obtained beginning with the base steel, which is smelted in special electric ovens of a size that depends on the amount required (in all cases, they are smaller than the Converters), with precise doses added of some of the above elements, to produce steels with specific mechanical and technological properties – in the same way as a chef expertly adds the ingredients to make a perfect risotto.
The discovery of the manual procedure to produce steel is very ancient, and while I am no expert in archaeology I like to think that it is true, and not a myth, that it dates back to the time of the Hittites, about 4,000/3,000 years ago. Without a doubt, in the same way that it has taken centuries to perfect the processes to produce gold, copper and its alloys, it has taken equally as long to perfect these metals too which were probably often the results of quite casual experiments. Iron, or better steel which chronologically followed the copper alloys was among these.
Man’s journey began around 3 million years ago, as far as we know, but I believe that the time when man began, metaphorically, to build the first bridge, based on a solid foundation that could hold its weight, which could extend forever towards the unknown, is much closer to our time. As an engineer, I believe that the use of steel has had, and will continue to have, an irreplaceable importance in man’s evolution, including in its artistic aspects (which are not of secondary importance either).
Steel has always had and continues to have an increasingly important role, even ‘structural’, given by the evolution of the civilisations. How many artistic expressions have been realised with steel? Personally I am unable to list these works, except for the general sectors: blacksmiths and iron constructions, civil engineering and bridges, mechanical engineering with tools and machine tools, architecture and buildings. However, I would like to list and express my thoughts about steel items, nor for those particularly that are recognised as real artistic objects, of the past and present, such as swords and firearms embellished with incisions and burnishing, wrought iron elements for gates, bars, balustrades, but those that are for “normal use”, and the machines and tools which enable us to make them today, such as the everyday household items (like stainless steel cutlery), mechanical clocks, dies for plastic materials and for die-casting aluminium alloy and copper alloy parts, engines, farming machinery (ploughs, cutters, harrows), cars, trains, ships, parts of planes and spaceships. In my opinion, even a simple analogical twentieth gauge (used to measure thickness and diameters with a precision of 0.05 mm), is of noteworthy beauty, like, for example, a machine tool known as a ‘gear cutter’ (cuts the teeth on gears for removing shavings), and I also think the cogwheel gear changes on an internal combustion engine or certain dies are also beautiful. If “beauty” can be considered as artistic, and if beauty has an objective component, then I think that many elements in the mechanical field are beautiful and artistic.

Ferdinando Bozza

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