ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

The Origins of Steel

Updated on October 7, 2015

Steel is one of the most widely used metals in the world, and it is also one of the most common. We use steel in a variety of different ways from large scale industrial projects to small household items. Steel is a hugely durable metal and can be used in the building of trains, ships, bridges and railways - anything that needs to be long lasting and strong. You can also find steel in your home in the washing machine, the fridge, fixtures and fittings and in nails and screws. You may not have realised it but steel is all over the place. As well as being a strong metal steel is also able to withstand some tension and is good at holding a sharp edge. It is also particularly appropriate for use in sterile environments and is often used in surgical equipment. Every year 1.3 billion tons of steel are produced, usually with a blast furnace, and used in many different industries. The fact that stainless steel is often used to give a modern finish may suggest that it is only a fairly recent invention, The reality, however, is that though the process of steel production was improved in the past few centuries its history stretches back thousands of years.

A Bronze Age sword
A Bronze Age sword | Source

The 'Iron Age'

Steel is made as an alloy from iron and carbon, which are both prevalent elements. Humans have been using iron and making things out of it for thousands of years. Proper production of iron metal began roughly around 2000 BC, before this the most commonly used hard material was bronze, an alloy made mostly out of copper. Use of bronze was so widespread that the period was later named the ‘Bronze Age’. Bronze fell out of use as people began to realise that iron, as a harder material, was more useful. Iron could also hold a sharp edge better than bronze, making it a good choice for weapons and implements. Unsurprisingly the use of iron caught on and the period was later dubbed the ‘Iron Age’.

Steel Properties

Depending on how much carbon iron contained it could have different properties and therefore different uses. Iron with a small amount of carbon in it (roughly 0.02%) is a more malleable form of iron but it has less strength. This kind of iron is known as ‘wrought iron’. Iron that has much more carbon in it (between 3 and 4.5%) is stronger but less malleable - almost brittle. This type of iron is called ‘cast iron’. Steel, on the other hand, is something of a compromise between the two. Containing between 0.2 and 1.5% carbon, it stronger than wrought iron but more malleable than cast iron.


Early Production

The process of making steel was refined and developed only a few centuries ago which gives the impression that it is a modern creation. The efficiency of the process was improved in the 17th century and then later made less expensive in the 19th century. Though these were important developments in the production of steel and helped to see in widespread usage through mass production, it was not the first time that steel had been created. You may think that creating steel needs advanced or modern technology, but in fact steel was being produced over a thousand years ago with much less sophisticated technology. Some of the earliest evidence of steel-working was found in Anatolia and dated as being 4,000 years old. Even the 17th century method of creating steel in a blast furnace has early predecessors. Steel has been found in East Africa that has been dated to 1400 BC and was likely to have been made in an early form of blast furnace by the Haya people.

Damascus steel
Damascus steel | Source

Wootz & Damascus Steel

The most well-known types of early steel are Damascus steel and wootz steel and there is a certain air of mystery that surrounds both of them. Wootz steel dates to around 300 BC and was produced in Sri Lanka and India. This type of steel was created through the use of a wind furnace - a furnace that made use of the power of the monsoon winds. Damascus steel was something of a follow-on from Wootz steel. It is believed that Damascus steel was produced from ingots of Wootz steel that were brought to the Middle East via traders from India. It was said that Damascus steel had a number of superior properties and myths began that a sword made from Damascus steel could slice through a rifle barrel because it was so strong and sharp. Though this myth is unlikely to be true there is still an air of mystery surrounding early forms of steel. The reason for this is because the original technique used to produce both Damascus and Wootz steel have been lost to history. The techniques were lost around the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. Many experimental archaeologists and historians have attempted to recreate the methods that may have been used but have so far had no luck.

Iberian Falcata
Iberian Falcata | Source

Early Steel-Working

Though Wootz and Damascus steel are arguably the best known types of steel, at least among metallurgists and historians, there were many different types of early steel and methods for making it. The Romans made steel known as ‘Noric steel’ which was notable for its strength. The 4th and 3rd centuries BC saw steel production in the Iberian Peninsula and in China. The Chinese produced ‘quench hardened steel’ at this time but by the 1st century AD had developed ‘carbon-intermediate steel’ through a method that melted wrought iron with cast iron. By the 17th century steel production had transformed into something akin to today’s process, smelting iron ore into pig iron in a blast furnace. The 19th century changed the process again and made it easier to mass-produce through the use of the Bessemer process. Today ‘stainless steel’ may almost be synonymous with ‘modern’ but the process of making steel actually has its roots in very early history.

Comments & Questions

Submit a Comment

No comments yet.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)