History of Stainless Steel - the smoking barrel - Metal by the Metre

Stainless Steel – It is early 1900s, Europe is in the midst of the Industrial Revolution – where does this new alloy come into the mix? 

Tensions are rising as nations race each other to build more powerful weapons. Alliances are formed, fears increased, battle lines are drawn – a Duke is about to be assassinated. World wide war is imminent. *Cue StarWars opening title crawl and music.*

Such is the dramatic landscape of the origins of our not so humble alloy – stainless steel

Perhaps a little over the top, I admit, but sometimes history needs a little flare thrown in to keep us interested, right? 

So, leading up to World War I, European nations had built some pretty big guns. Not the pew pew type, but the big booming cannon types built on the back of flatbed rail cars like the Paris Gun, or gasolene powered tractor guns like the original Big Bertha howitzer. (Side note for nerds: these two were built during the war, not before).

The problem with these guns was that the barrels were made from carbon steel (a mixture of steel and carbon, for the metallurgically challenged) which would get super hot when the gun was fired and the inside grooves (or rifling) would wear out. 

Enter Harry Brearley, the hero of our story. 

Born and bred in Sheffield, England, Harry was a ‘sometime street arab’, an urchin living in the shadow of steel works and eventually rising through the ranks to become a director of a steel supply firm. While leading a research project aimed at addressing the erosion of the big guns, Harry discovered that adding chromium to steel in certain quantities would increase its capacity to withstand high temperatures and corrosion. He called it… Rustless Steel. Well done, Harry!

Incidentally, Harry was not the first to make this discovery. (Wait, say that again?)

That’s right our hero, who has become known as the great grandaddy of chromium steel, was actually preceded by many others dating as far back as 1820 when Englishmen Stoddard and Farraway followed by Frenchman Pierre Birthier noted that chromium steel alloys were resistant to some acids. The cogs were already turning but they couldn’t produce steel with a high chromium low carbon ration indicative of modern stainless steel. (Bummer). And a decent line of chromium- happy metallurgists ensued.

Honourable mentions also go to:

  • Englishmen John T. Woods and John Clark and their marine grade, Water Resistant Steel (Huzzah)
  • Frenchman Brustlein for understanding the need for low carbon and high chromium (Bravo)
  • German Hans Goldschmidt for his Carbon-free Chromium (Sehr gut Hans)
  • Guillet, Geisen, Portevin, Monartz and Borshers for lots of really good research.

Meanwhile, in Germany and America, engineers and inventors were all racing to patent some variation of their own discovery of corrosive-less steel – notably Strauss, Maurer, Haynes, Armstrong, Beckett and Dantsizen – who made discoveries in ferritic chromium steel, chromium nickel alloys and chromium silicon steel. (Just nod your head and pretend to understand for me ok, or read more here)

What came next: 

Since Harry’s era, Stainless Steel was refined overtime and made available commercially in four main grades.

  • Martenistic. 
  • Ferritic. 
  • Austentic. 
  • Duplex

The first two are magnetic while the latter two are not. The differences between these grades largely comes down to the quantities of other alloying metals such as copper, nickel and titanium. Interstitial alloying (think M&M’s on a tennis racket) carbon and nitrogen is a common way stainless steel has been enhanced since its genesis. Nerd out here for more on this.

From screws and nuts and bolts to the Empire State Building, Stainless Steel is now available in a host of applications. Construction has taken a shine to Stainless Steel, making balustrades, wire rope, turnbuckles, washers, and joist hangers for their non- corrosive and aesthetic properties. And the hygienic nature of Stainless Steel has made it essential in food preparation and the medical suppliers industry.  

And to think it all started with a smoking barrel…