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Iron: From mythical to mundane
Metalworking is one of the oldest crafts, going back far beyond recorded history. But until a few thousand years ago, one of the most abundant metals—iron—was virtually unknown. The ancient Egyptians and Sumerians knew iron only from meteors, and considered it heavenly, a gift from the gods. Later civilizations discovered how to smelt it, and their period came to be known as the Iron Age, but they didn’t know how to consistently make it strong, and not brittle. During the Industrial Revolution, we discovered how to make it strong, consistent, and even cheap.
Now high-quality steel is everywhere around us: holding up our buildings (in both girders and reinforced concrete), in our cars and ships, in trains and their rails, in bridges and towers, in electrical infrastructure, in refrigerators and washing machines, in pots and pans, in forks and knives, in hammers and saws, in nails and screws, in tables and chairs.The wonder of the metal is gone, but the wonder of the process remains. A steel foundry is an amazing sight, with enormous blast furnaces several stories high, raging at thousands of degrees 24/7, attended by a swarm of workers, like a great beast with an insatiable hunger for ore, coke, and lime.
Kuibyshev Steel Works, Ukraine (RIA Novosti archive / Yuriy Ivanov)
The product they put out is of such purity and consistency that it would be hailed by the ancients as a miracle, a feat of craftsmanship possible only through divine intervention. But in the modern economy, it is a commodity.
What is this material? Why is it so hard to make? And how did it go from mythical to mundane?
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