History of Iron - when did people first use iron? what is the difference between iron and steel?
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greek vase painting of man and boy crouching over a furnace
Blacksmith in Ancient Greece (ca. 530 BC)

July 2016 - Iron is harder to form into metal than copper or bronze, because it needs a much hotter fire and a more complicated process, but if you can figure out how to do it, iron is also much more useful than copper or bronze. Also, iron is very common all over the world, so everyone can get it cheaply.

Above, there's an Ancient Greek vase showing a blacksmith heating up iron while a younger boy works the bellows to blow the fire hot enough. Below, there's a video of a blacksmith making something out of iron. First he heats up the metal so it will get softer, and then he beats it into shape with a hammer. Nobody could work iron until they figured out how to build a bellows to get their fires hot enough.

Blacksmith at work

Because iron is so hard to make, nobody used iron before about 1500 BC. Then the Hittites in West Asia did learn how to use it. But they quickly saw that iron weapons were better than bronze ones, and so they decided not to tell anybody else how to make iron. The Hittites kept the secret of making iron for about 400 years, until about 1100 BC, but when the Dark Ages came to West Asia, the Hittite empire fell apart anyway, and the secret of making iron got out to other people.

After the Dark Ages, therefore, all the West Asian and Mediterranean people started to use iron: the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Kushites, the Jews, the Philistines, the Romans, the Carthaginians, and the Assyrians. Iron-working travelled east, too, reaching India around 800 BC. People who lived in China learned how to make iron by around 700 or 600 BC, during the Eastern Chou dynasty. By about 300 AD, people in West Africa and East Africa had also learned the secrets of making iron. Some people think they learned how from the Egyptians; other people think the Africans figured it out on their own. Since then, iron has been the metal people use most all over Afro-Eurasia.

Not only was iron cheaper and easier to get than bronze, it also made better tools. With an iron sword, you could slice as well as stabbing with the point. Iron armor was lighter and stronger than bronze. Iron knives and scissors were sharper than bronze ones and stayed sharp longer. Iron fish-hooks were stronger and lighter and sharper than bronze or bone hooks. Iron cooking pots weighed less, got hot faster, and held heat better than clay pots. Iron bars were stronger and could hold more weight. In India, by the 1000s AD architects were even making iron beams to hold up the roofs of big temples.

But people didn't stop with just inventing iron. Not long after people started using iron in Central Asia, they improved on it by inventing steel. Steel is iron with extra carbon in it. Around 300 BC, people began to make high quality steel in India and in Central Asia (modern Uzbekistan and Afghanistan). Steel swords were stronger and sharper. Steel sewing needles were thinner and sharper, too. With steel needles, people started to sew clothes more instead of just wrapping pieces of cloth around themselves. Central Asians and Indians started to sell their steel to West Asia and China along the Silk Road. By the 800s AD, the Vikings were making the long trip south-east from northern Europe through Russia to buy Central Asian steel, too.

Learn by doing: look around your house. What is made of iron?
More about steel

Bibliography and further reading about iron and steel:

More about steel
Why does iron rust?
Chemistry of Iron
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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