A Steel World
When you realise that everything around you right now – from the building you’re in to the screen you’re reading this on, even the tiny screws that hold together the table you’re near – was designed by someone with purpose, it’s fascinating to see the accidental inventions in life. These are the tools, materials and designs that came about purely by happenstance instead of process, but that doesn’t make them any less useful. Consider the unlikely origin of Stainless Steel.
Of course, steel itself has been in use for over 4,000 years, but can be prone to wear and rust if not properly handled. The iron component of steel is particularly susceptible to the elements and so, metallurgists began the search for a solution. In the early 1800’s there were experiments made by combining chromium and iron, but the results were too brittle to make practical tools out of, let alone form the basis of construction projects.
Enter Harry Brearly…
Harry Brearly was the man who cracked the code in 1912, and he wasn’t even trying. He worked in a research laboratory where he was trying to design gun barrels that wouldn’t deteriorate with prolonged use. This required an alloy that was hard-wearing and smooth, so he tried multiple combinations of elements before discarding them in a pile if they didn’t meet his criteria.
However, after a few weeks he noted that one of the discarded prototypes still appeared like new. He examined it and found that it was made with a unique combination of chromium and carbon – the basis for what we know now as Stainless Steel. He took this discovery to the local cutlery market where it found instant success, filling the gap between the cheap steel utensils that were damaged easily and the resilient silver ones that were too expensive for most people.
From there, he took Stainless Steel to the United States and, teaming up with fellow metallurgist Elwood Haynes to form the American Stainless Steel company, sold over 25,000 tonnes of their damage-resistant material by 1929. The rest is history.