The story of steel reveals the story of the eternal quest of mankind towards progress and development.This narrative is a crucial indicator of the relentless attempts in acquiring contextual solutions that have aided technological advancement and ultimately the globalized world that we see today.
Need for a Power-Packed Material
One may wonder, why steel went on to become a game-changer in the world of building materials, The answer is pretty pragmatic. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’. In this case, a discovery lead to invention. The advent of settled societies brought into focus varying trades like arts and crafts including pottery, metalworking, weaving, etc. Metalworking looked into making tools, ornaments, household utensils, and so on. The need for a strong yet flexible metal first emerged in the domain of weaponry and then subsequently in the construction industry.
The story of steel cannot be narrated without a brief history of its parent metal-Iron.
Who would have ever imagined that this story would have celestial beginnings!
The Quest for the Perfect Metal
The first traces of iron were found in meteors that had crashed to the surface of the earth from space. This meteoric iron, found in various parts of Egypt and Sumer in 1400 BC was also referred to as the ‘metal from heaven’. This iron-nickel alloy was considered to be of extreme value. Tutankhamen’s tomb unearthed the presence of a handcrafted dagger made of this very meteoric iron.
- ©Rama Raghavan
- Source: Wikipedia Commons
Eventually, an abundant repository of Iron in the form of Iron-ore was discovered under the surface of the earth. And so began the pursuit of extracting iron from iron ore through continued processes of trial and error. Various metallurgical experiments with iron ore gave cues to the existence of the perfect metal that was far more durable and flexible than iron- Steel.
The Roots of Steel in Ancient India
Iron Pillar in Mehrauli
- Source: Wikimedia commons
The use of iron and steel incidentally was seen very early on, in ancient India. One of the oldest wrought iron structures in India- a 7m tall iron pillar made in the 5th C BC found at Mehrauli in the Qutub Minar complex in Delhi, built at least 1600 years back bears testimony to the metalworking skills in India.
Interestingly, one of the oldest steel manufacturers has been traced back to Ancient South India (Present-day Tamil Nadu) to the 3rd C BC. The steel called ‘Wootz Steel’, characterized by a pattern of bands was made in clay crucibles. Steel produced in these crucibles was of a high grade and was exported to many parts of the world including Damascus, Syria where they were used to forge legendary swords.
Close up of Damascus Swords
- Source: Wikimedia commons
Leap of Steel - A step towards Globalization
The advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century saw a flurry of activity in manufacturing, construction, and technology. There was a sudden demand for large-scale production of steel especially in the transportation sector, particularly for laying rails.
The reason steel production was inefficient despite multiple methods devised, was the amount of time taken to process iron into steel.
In the 1950s, Henry Bessemer, a British engineer discovered the process of mass-producing steel, called as Bessemmer’s process, that changed the face of steel manufacturing across the world.
It was now possible and feasible to build large-span structures, bridges, railroads, and so on. Steel framed structures revolutionized the design of building envelopes that allowed for large openings to welcome in daylight and fresh air and the possibility of building skyscrapers. Not even the sky was the limit. The scale of steel production was an invariable indicator of the economic status of a country given its ability to scale up manufacturing and construction.
Crystal Palace, London
- Source: Wikipedia commons
Some of the earliest steel structures were Crystal Palace in London- a large exhibition space for the great exhibition in 1851 designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, the Empire State Building, the Seagram Building, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, etc.
In India, the production of iron and steel post the industrial revolution began under the reign of the East India Company in the 1800s. The Bengal Iron and Steel company also was a significant player in the Steel industry. The Steel revolution in India underwent a major boost when Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata established Tata Steel, earlier named TISCO in 1907. Since then, Tata Steel has been consistently one of the leading producers of Steel in the world. production of iron and steel post the industrial revolution began under the reign of the East India Company in the 1800s. The Bengal Iron and Steel company also was a significant player in the Steel industry. The Steel revolution in India underwent a major boost when Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata established Tata Steel, earlier named TISCO in 1907. Since then, Tata Steel has been consistently one of the leading producers of Steel in the world.
The wide use of steel began during this time, especially in laying railroads and in the construction industry in public buildings like railway stations and bridges.
- ©Rama Raghavan
The ‘Rabindra Setu’ bridge in Howrah was one of the oldest wonders in steel in India, bridging a length of 705 m, built-in 1942.
In today’s context, we see the shaping technology in steel and steel alloys having advanced in such leaps and bounds, it can practically be used in every imaginable application right from building construction, building services, packaging, auto motives, domestic appliances, and so on.
The story of steel is the story of the transformation of mankind towards modernism. It is the story of a material that was universal, recyclable, durable, and most importantly versatile; that could help manifest dreams into reality.