Steel History - the Invention of Steel answers questions


Here's a video of a man forging steel.

July 2016 - Soon after 300 BC, Sogdian and Mauryan people in Central Asia and India started to make their iron tools out of a much higher quality of iron that we call steel. Steel is iron with more carbon in it than regular iron. It is much stronger and more flexible (it doesn't break as easily), and steel edges stay sharp longer.

Thanks to Buddhist monks, there were big research universities in Mauryan India, where people came from all over Asia to study and work, and it may be their work that first invented a way to make steel. Steel-workers made steel by wrapping iron and certain kinds of weeds in wet clay, and then baking the package (the crucible) slowly for several days, which forced the carbon from the burnt plants into the iron ore and created steel. Then they would break the clay and take out a lump of steel - just enough to make a sword.

Blacksmiths made a lot of this high-quality steel into swords, but it also turned out to be useful for other things. For the first time, you could make strong, thin, sharp sewing needles, and by 200 BC people in China made sewing needles and started to sew fancy silk clothing with embroidery to sell on the Silk Road. Han Dynasty iron-workers started to make some of their own steel as early as the 200s AD in the Han Dynasty. By this time, there were steel needle factories in Roman West Asia, too, which eventually led to Egyptian Coptic embroidery.

Acording to the Periplus the Romans and Parthians both imported steel swords from India, though ordinary soldiers still used iron swords. The rise of the Islamic Empire in the 600s AD encouraged this trade across North Africa to Islamic Spain. In Sri Lanka, by this time, industrial steel furnaces used the regular monsoon wind to get enough oxygen into the furnace to keep the heat up - to make enough steel to meet demand. Charlemagne, in the late 700s AD, thought these "Indian swords" (steel swords) were so valuable that he took the French army and invaded Spain in the hope of capturing some steel swords - and he did capture some. Soon afterwards, Viking traders began sailing south along the Volga river to the Caspian Sea, where they bought Central Asian steel from the Samanids and brought it home to make swords for Europe. These swords (their brand name was Ulfberht) were so expensive that German blacksmiths made cheap knockoff swords with local, crappy steel, or with just a thin coating of steel over an iron sword.

Damascus Steel
Damascus steel sword from the 1200s AD

As Europe got richer, starting in the 1100s AD, Europeans tried to figure out how to produce their own steel. Northern Germany, where the Ulfberht swords came from, was one center, and Toledo, in Spain, was another.

Learn by doing: a scavenger hunt about metals
More about Iron
Modern Steel

Bibliography and further reading about iron and steel:

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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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Now that the weather's nice, try some of these outdoor activities! How about bicycle polo, or archery for a Medieval Islam day? Or kite flying or making a compass for a day in Medieval China? How about making a shaduf for a day in Ancient Egypt? Holding an Ancient Greek Olympic Games or a medieval European tournament? Building a Native American wickiup?