History

Wrought iron

Iron objects of great age are much rarer than objects made of gold or silver due to the ease of corrosion of iron. Beads made of meteoric iron in 3500 B.C. or earlier were found in Gerzah, Egypt by G. A. Wainwright. The beads contain 7.5% nickel, which is a signature of meteoric origin since iron found in the Earth’s crust has very little to no nickel content. Meteoric iron was highly regarded due to its origin in the heavens and was often used to forge weapons and tools or whole specimens placed in churches. Items that were likely made of iron by Egyptians date from 2500 to 3000 BC. Iron had a distinct advantage over bronze in warfare implements. It was much harder and more durable than bronze, although susceptible to rust. However, this is contested. Hittitologist Trevor Bryce argues that before advanced iron-working techniques were developed in Europe and India, cast-iron weapons used by early Mesopotamian armies had a tendency to shatter in combat, due to their high carbon content.

The first iron production started in the Middle Bronze Age but it took several centuries before iron displaced bronze. Samples of smelted iron from Asmar, Mesopotamia and Tall Chagar Bazaar in northern Syria were made sometime between 2700 and 3000 BC. The Hittites appear to be the first to understand the production of iron from its ores and regard it highly in their society. They began to smelt iron between 1500 and 1200 BC and the practice spread to the rest of the Near East after their empire fell in 1180 BC.The subsequent period is called the Iron Age. Iron smelting, and thus the Iron Age, reached Europe two hundred years later and arrived in Zimbabwe, Africa by the 8th century.

Cast iron

Cast iron was first produced in China about 550 BC, but was hardly in Europe until the medieval period. During the medieval period, means were found in Europe of producing wrought iron from cast iron (in this context known as pig iron) using finery forges. For all these processes, charcoal was required as fuel.

Medieval blast furnaces were about 10 feet (3.0 m) tall and made of fireproof brick; forced air was usually provided by hand-operated bellows. Modern blast furnaces have grown much bigger.In 1709, Abraham Darby I established a coke-fired blast furnace to produce cast iron. The ensuing availability of inexpensive iron was one of the factors leading to the Industrial Revolution. Toward the end of the 18th century, cast iron began to replace wrought iron for certain purposes, because it was cheaper. Carbon content in iron wasn’t implicated as the reason for the differences in properties of wrought iron, cast iron and steel until the 18th century. Since iron was becoming cheaper and more plentiful, it also became a major structural material following the building of the innovative first iron bridge in 1778.

Steel

Steel (with smaller carbon content than pig iron but more than wrought iron) was first produced in antiquity by using a bloomery. Blacksmiths in Luristan in western Iran were making good steel by 1000 BC. Then improved versions, Wootz steel by India and Damascus steel by China were developed around 300 B.C. and 500 A.D. respectively. These methods were specialized, and so steel did not become a major commodity until the 1850s.

New methods of producing it by carburizing bars of iron in the cementation process were devised in the 17th century AD. In the Industrial Revolution, new methods of producing bar iron without charcoal were devised and these were later applied to produce steel. In the late 1850s, Henry Bessemer invented a new steelmaking process, involving blowing air through molten pig iron, to produce mild steel. This made steel much more economical, thereby leading to wrought iron no longer being produced.